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Mumbai Dabbawalas

Posted on: 10 April '09

While at NIT Trichy during their technology festival, I attended an invigorating, as also entertaining, talk from Manish Tripathi from the Mumbai Dabbawallas * . The Mumbai Dabbawallas deliver food every day from the home to the workplace and they do it with minimal technology, processes, or structure. They became world renowned as a six sigma organization, and were studied by Harvard University. Six sigma means less than 3.4 defects to a million opportunities, this implies out of every million lunch boxes that need to be reached from a million homes to their respective destinations in different offices in Mumbai, at most three could miss reaching the right desk at the right time. When we are dealing with lunch boxes, we must understand they must reach before lunch time, else there’s no value. And Mumbai traffic or rains will not be an acceptable excuse for delay.What did I learn about the Mumbai Dabbawallas that makes their service so reliable, that most companies would like to emulate?

First, some interesting aspects of their success, as I understood from Manish Tripathi in his own words:
1. They have not put any ads ever, as it “serves genuine needs of people”.

2. In any business there are two challenges: figure out how to solve a business problem for a large customer base; and how to get employees to serve the customer.

3. The boxes are color coded to ensure the code can be understood even by illiterate people.

4. All 5000 dabbawallas are shareholders of the system. 635 of them are senior employees, but there is no hierarchy. The revenue of rupees 50 crore is shared among the 5000 dabbawallas.

* Each dabbawala does 35 collections, 35 deliveries, and returns 35 empty tiffin boxes. Every team of 20-25 headed by group leader. The executive committee has five members.
* President also works as Dabbawala, travels with them, shares with them.
* They have not had a single “strike” in more than a hundred years.

5. All of them come from a single sect from remote villages around Mumbai, everyone has “same DNA”. Synergy and cooperation is very high as it is a “single DNA organization”.

Now some interesting management practices:
1. They have a few beliefs at work:
* work is worship
* serving people is serving God
* time is money
* unity is power

2. The Dabbawalas are descendants of warriors in army of Shivaji. Their new enemy is time – their goal is to reach the right dabba at the right time. The three hours of commute to the office is the “war time”.

3. One reason they are successful is they are “suitably” educated. Majority has not studied beyond class 8.

4. They have zero fuel, zero modern technology, zero investment, zero disputes, six nine (99.9999%) performance, and 100 percent customer satisfaction.

5. In any supply chain, collection of objects is first and most important step.
* If someone delays (giving the dabba on time) 3 times, “we stop serving them”.
* He mentioned the management learning – abandon bad customers. “Current recession started due to serving bad customers” !

6. Dabbawala minus discipline ‘is zero’. They must wear white cap in business hours, must report to duty on time, respect customers, and carry identification cards”

7. People know the consequences of their mistakes, i.e. how the customer suffers.

8. Instant decisions are taken on the spot. There’s a mini government meeting every month to help, guide, and to resolve differences

The lessons are simple and obvious!

Let me end with one interesting story – one large shipping company from Europe came to study their process, and traveled in the local train from Virar to Churchgate station to experience the action. Finally, they asked, how is it that with all our technology, we manage to lose large shipments, but here, with so simple process and technology, you achieve six-sigma. They responded, “Our commitment”.

* The “dabba” is a lunch box, and the dabbawalla is one who delivers the lunch box from home to office, at lunch time.

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  • Geetha

    Dear Mr. Banerjee,

    Great post! Thank you!

    Yes, it is the commitment and Passion to serve that has earned the Dabbawalas worldwide recognition and fame. And, of course, the excellent systems (not very high-tech though which just goes to show that you don’t always have to rely on ultra sophisticated systems!) that they have put in place to achieve zero-defect service and also to meet their SLAs is really commendable!

    A great lesson to achieve total customer satisfaction.

    Thank you,

    Regards,

    Geetha

  • Sorry, I am digressing a bit from the main topic which you have in mind of six sigma, committment and customer satisfaction.
    It is intersting to note that the dabba wallahs have survived even during the fast-food era. Whenever I visit our Nariman Point office, I see that those who get their dabba’s actually break for lunch, no matter how “urgent” the work on hand seems. Just because the empty dabba has to be returned within a specific period of time. If there is a delay the dabbawalla will not wait.
    This means, that they do eat on time and they eat healthy home cooked food, unlike others (including me) who have to hurry through a sandwich or something more unhealthy swallowed with coke at some odd hour.
    Wonder if those who get dabbas are more productive. Perhaps they are.
    Is it also because the dabbawallas are from a single sect, that this concept has not taken over elsewhere? Or it could also be so because there is no similar public transport system (such as special boogies in local trains in Mumbai)available for them in any other city.
    Sorry for rambling. I miss Mumbai, even though I experienced the dabba walla only when I was in school.

  • Geetha

    Dear Mr. Banerjee,

    I seem to have failed yesterday in my attempt at posting my comment on the “Mumbai Dabbawalas”.

    Yes, the Dabbawalas have indeed achieved worldwide recognition and fame due to their unswerving commitment and more importantly, Passion to serve the community at large. And as mentioned by you, they have achieved this sans high-tech systems and ultra-sophisticated processes. Just goes to show that without relying solely on technology and just by combining the art and science of sales with a good dose of passion thrown in, it is possible to deliver world-class, zero-defects service. And the fact that they have no real competition whatsoever in their chosen field proves that they have mastered the technique of delivering fast, consistent and smooth transactions.

    They have been able to do this also because they are powered by a team where every member is in total sync with the others. It is like a beautiful orchestra where nobody strikes a discordant note! Kudos to the power of team spirit.

    Like you have also said, not many of the Dabbawalas possess the absolute sine qua non of a basic educational degree even but when it comes to rendering superb customer service where SLAs are achieved in a sustained manner, there is none to beat them. And they have made it happen even without incurring great expenditure on advertising!

    They are a “Brand” by themselves and it is their deep Desire, Skills and Attitude that drives them! Each person in this cohesive unit has taken upon himself the onus of leadership as well as ownership and that is how they have flourished and have also managed to remain in the “Euphoria Stage” when it comes to total customer satisfaction.

    And like Lubna has also emphasized, it is thanks to people like them that quite a lot of people get to eat delicious home-made food! May their tribe increase!

    Thank you for the wonderful post on Dabbawalas, which is a fantastic tribute to their yeoman service.

    Regards,

    Geetha

  • Kalyan K. Banerjee

    Geetha, you have made some wonderful points here. Trust, teamwork, and implicit understanding reduce cycle time and enhance quality. In a setting of perfect teamwork, people will accept mistakes easily and work on the solution. Otherwise, significant energy is spent in getting people to accept there is a problem.

  • Geetha Manichandar

    Thank you, Mr.Banerjee!

    Yes, it does not pay to play the blame game!

    Thanks and regards,

    Geetha

  • Anjali Raina

    Dear Kalyan,Your summary has covered all the salient features most succintly-
    It gives one pause to think- will this service survive the aspirations of the new generation of dabbawalas? also have a question- do you remember
    which shipping comapny visited ?
    Anjali

  • saj

    Very nice article…

  • ashish

    How dabbawala work so effeciently?
    Provide me total number of dabbawala and their customer plz.

  • Vijayanthi Jason

    very valuable take aways, thank u for the post

  • Nicely pointed out, importance of Commitment. Please do add that they follow Discipline with ethics to fulfill their commitment. That’s their Intellectual property (IP) and sustainable competitive advantage (SCA).

  • Anil Kumar

    While most of the packed meals (Dabbas) originate from homes, Tiffin suppliers also utilise the services of Dabbawalas to deliver meals to their customers. Over 200 Tiffin suppliers are listed in Indiatiffins.com which is a portal for Tiffin services.

    • Anil, this is interesting. What you are suggesting is Mumbai Dabbawallas are now serving tiffin suppliers as well. A case of collaboration with potential competition.

      And, of course, technology has helped extend the reach.

  • anita pavan

    the dabbawalas of mumbai rock!!
    however I’m trying to get their number for days now as I need to use their service. please can someone help me. Thanks

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  • Vishal Shah

    The Dabbawalas services have gone bad to worse,

    A General survey & report says that 80% customers are absolutely not satisfied with them.

    The behavior of these dabbawalas are very abusive and enter the office premises in drunk condition.
    They use quiet abusive languages while talking on phone & delivering the tiffins.

    Every month the tiffins are damaged in transit, and the holiday list for these dabbawalas are unexpected and much more than bank holidays of any other corporates in the world.

    Dont know why media and international organisations have not focused on these areas.

    The Objective of every Service providers / organisations / Unions are Customer satisfaction, but this is cornered up.

    Sincere request to the media & other surveyors to interview their customers.

    • Thanks for providing a different perspective, Vishal. If 80% customers are dissatisfied, they should have gone out of business by now. What is the source of data on the 80% ?

      My blog was not in response to media reports but from what I learnt from them directly. Hopefully they will listen to perspectives like yours and find a way to correct themselves.