Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Lesson In Management From Dabbawalas

Mumbai Dabbawalas
--Food for Thought for Management Schools

About 120 years ago, sometime in 1890, some Parsi, Gujarati and Maharashtrian residents of Bombay living in far off suburbs, nearly 30-40 kms away, and working in the Fort area, were finding it difficult to get healthy and hygienic food for lunch at reasonable rates at their place of work. Most of them had to leave their houses as early as 7 AM and return late in the evening and the means of communication was mostly fast moving local trains. After a lot of discussions among some of them, they evolved a meticulous plan to get homely meals from their houses through a carrier. It is this planned way of getting homely meals during lunch break at their place of work through a messenger which is now popular in Mumbai as ‘Dabbawala’ system of getting homely food.

According to some veteran Dabbawalas the system was mostly initiated and encouraged by some Parsi residents of Bombay. The process started with about 100 dabbas [Tiffin carriers] which were carried around in horse drawn trams and delivered in the Fort area, which housed important offices in those days. Today the 5,000 strong Dabbawala force, of which there are quite a few women, too, uses handcarts, fast and slow local trains and strong wooden racks to carry the dabbas. It is tough work, carrying 30 dabbas in a rack for a monthly salary of about Rs.5, 000 to Rs.6, 000. Originally those who did the rounds came from villages like Ambegaon and Rajguru Nagar of Poona district. The unemployed of this region came to the city and were engaged in this trade. It has now become mostly hereditary but the old dedication and sense of pride remains intact.

Even though the institution of Dabbawala is nearly 120 years old, it got wide publicity and world wide acclaim about a decade back when the FORBES magazine from America wrote a lengthy article about it, stressing the efficiency of the system and giving it a rating for its efficiency. Dealing with the effectiveness and efficiency of the system, the Forbes wrote “About 5,000 tiffinwalas deliver 1, 75,000 lunches everyday and take the empty tiffin carriers back. They make one mistake in 2 months. This means there is one error on every 16 million transactions. This is thus a 6 Sigma Performance [a term used in quality assurance if the percentage of correctness is 99.999999]—the performance which has made companies like Motorola world famous for their quality. The tiffinwalas of Bombay have achieved a level of service to which Western businesses can only aspire”.

The process of collecting the tiffin boxes and delivering them punctually runs something like this: The meals are picked up from the commuter’s homes in the far off suburbs in tiffin boxes, popular as dabbas, long after the commuter has gone to office. They are delivered to the hungry mouths well in time, then picked up again in the afternoon and the empty boxes are returned before the commuter returns home. Each tiffin box has painted on its top, a number of symbols with which the Dabbawala is quite familiar. These symbols identify where the carrier was picked up, the origin and destination of the box, the address to which it is to be delivered. After the tiffin carriers are picked up, they are taken to the nearest railway station where they are sorted out according to their destination. They are loaded into crates onto the baggage cars of trains and each crate can carry about 30 boxes. The crates are put in the local trains. At the destination they are unloaded by other Dabbawalas and re-sorted, this time according to street addresses and floor. The Dabbas are delivered punctually much before the lunch break. For this service, the charges are about Rs. 250- Rs.300 per month. Each Dabbawala picks up about 15 to 20 Dabbas so that sorting and delivery become easy.

What makes the system unique is its teamwork and group leadership combined with a system of codes and colours adopted for the tiffin boxes. These code markings and colours can be deciphered only by the Dabbavala. Each destination is given a particular number. If a Dabba is to be delivered at the Nariman Point, it has the 3 mark written boldly on the centre of the lid. Along its sides are written in Red “12 MT 7”, indicating 12th Floor, MT stands for Mittal Towers and 7 stands for office number. In a city where the names of streets are sometimes changed and new offices come in, the Dabbawalas have their own way of permanent identification. For example, for a tiffin box to reach SNDT University Building, Churchgate, the Dabbavala identifies the location by the word ‘Kamb ka’ because it has a flag post. Similarly the L.I.C. Headquarters “Yogakshema” in Churchgate [Where I was working earlier], which has a slight curvature, is identified by the word ‘Vakra

When the BBC showed a documentary on Mumbai’s Dabbawala a few years back,
it caught the attention of the entire world, including that of Prince Charles from Britain.
On watching the documentary, the Prince made up his mind to include Bombay in his itinerary during his next visit to India Accordingly when he visited India in November 2003, the Prince met the President and Secretary of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Association and learnt first hand the beguiling intricacies of the Distribution Management that would beat even Federal Express for their accurate deliveries. The Prince was so much pleased with the system that he extended an invitation to the chief office bearers of the Association to visit London and be his guests.

The President and Secretary of the Association used the occasion of the Prince’s wedding with Camille Parker on 5th April 2003 to visit London and personally bless the couple. The Prince received them personally and introduced them to all the members of the royal family. He was kind enough to enquire about the welfare of other Dabbawalas whom he had met during his visit to Bombay. As the office bearers were not fluent in English while speaking to the Prince, they were helped by the Maharani of Udaipur. The Prince was touched and immensely pleased with the wedding gifts affectionately sent by the Dabbawala Association. Among other things, the gifts included a Maharashtrian turban, a specially woven silk sari for his bride, a golden Mangalasutram and a specially and artistically designed Greetings Card.

With the article in the FORBES magazine and the praise showered by Prince Charles on the management skill of the Dabbavala, the Mumbai Dabbavala became a subject matter for discussion in almost all the Management Schools in India. Representatives of the Dabbavala Association were invited by several prestigious Management Schools asking them to talk on Distribution Management. They have so far given talks at IIM.Ahmedabad, IIM Lucknow, IIM Bangalore, The Symbiosis Institute of Management, Pune and the Confederation of Indian Industry [CII]

Today the Dabbawalas of Mumbai deliver home made food to nearly 2 lakh people a day, covering a distance of about 60-70 kms and the annual turnover of the business is about Rs.12 crores. This business is a specialty of Mumbai and Mumbai alone, since such a system is possible only in a city which is well connected with a network of efficient local trains which is almost the lifeline of the city.


B.M.N. Murthy

Article No.459--Mumbai Dabbawalas
Created: Friday, August 29, 2008 9:37 PM


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