The Curious Case of Dabbawalas


We live in a world where the importance of technology is heavily embedded in the tenets of efficient service delivery. Management theories have also largely shaped this discourse. The emphasis on theories and technology have been so heightened that it is indispensable to efficiency and ultimately success. But what if I told you that in the bustling city of Mumbai, an army comprising of partially educated men and only 2 womenis creating waves in the field of service delivery and that too by greatly eschewing the channels of modern technology?

Food for thought, right?

Meet Mumbai’s Dabbawalas.

It all started in 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, a migrant from North Maharashtra, cashed in on the opportunity to feed hungry office going Indian masses by hiring youths who would deliver lunches to these people and send back the empty lunch boxes to where they came from.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Today it is a blossoming trade, growing at 5-10% per annum. There were 100 dabbawalasduring the system’s inception, now there are 5000 dabbawalas delivering 200,000 dabbas(lunch boxes) per day.

It was the birth of this putative trade that would become a pivotal part of not only Mumbai’s catering ecosystem but also its culture. The Dabbawala system was designed to make sure housewives do not have to get ready early in the morning to prepare lunches for their husbands. The system ensured that housewives can get up in a convenient time, prepare the lunches and make sure the meal still reaches their husbands’ offices in time.

The trade had withstood the onslaught, 125 years have unleashed onto it-but from the torrential monsoon seasons and creaky infrastructure to modern day Mumbai, the dabbawalas have never failed in their timing and efficiency. There are a slew of reasons for this including the innate Indian obsession of eating home cooked meals, the rise of expensive restaurants, hygiene issues etc. But the most notable reason is the Dabbawala system’s staggering levels of accuracy in delivering lunches to the offices on time. For this, Forbes awarded it the six sigma quality rating, its survey found that Dabbawalas make only 1 mistake in 6 million dabba deliveries.

How do they do it?

Time Task
9 am-10 30am Each Dabbawala picks up dabbas from homes of clients
10:30am- 11 30am Reaches the nearest railways station, sort the dabbas based on their destinations using the coding system with other Dabbawalas, load the dabbas on the train
11:30 am-12:10pm Unload the dabbas, final sorting
12:10pm-1 pm Deliver meals


Practices that modern-day businesses can learn from the Dabbawala mechanism are:

  1. Cultivate a robust sense of ownership- one of the main reasons why Dabbawalas have been been so successful in their trade is because the sense of ownership has permeated throughout their work ethic. The sense of ownership is stemmed from the sharing of profits and from the innate sentimental beliefs in commitment.
  1. Forge a flat organizational structure- A flat organizational structure comprises of only a handful of hierarchies and forges openings for front line employees to engage in decision making activities. There are 200 groups of dabbawalas, each with 25 personnel. These groups enjoy autonomy and can offer services at low costs. Also, Dabbawalas’ flat organizational structure curtails politics to a high degree.
  1. Place utmost focus on consumers- Dabbawalas are devoted to only one thing:accuracy. This simple goal not only creates clarity andintense focus to customer satisfaction, but also spurs them to exceed expectations. Their motto- “Work is worship. Customer is God” is a testament to this.
  1. Ensure dedicated teamwork- Dabbawalas engage in teamwork to complement each other. The high levels of commitment exhibited by each Dabbawala make teamwork extremely effective. The whole distribution system relies heavily on dedicated teamwork.
  1. Measured hiring- Dabbawalas hire only those people who are in line with the Dabbawala network in terms of values, mindset, language and work ethic. Homogeneity is another pivotal factor driving success.
  1. Eschew customers who are impediments to efficiency- Dabbawalas reject bad customers who can make life difficult and unproductive.
  1. Maintain additional resources as a cushion against potential shocks- There are two to three additional Dabbawalas in every group who are always ready to make sure that any emergency is dealt with promptly and that the schedule is maintained.
  1. Create sticklers for discipline -Discipline is the name of the game when Dabbawalas operate. Dababwalas never compromise with discipline and follow the rigorous standards and processes with zeal. This helps them to achieve the highest levels of Six Sigma ratings globally.


Source: SDAsia 

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