A dabbawala is a person in Mumbai, India, whose job is carrying and delivering freshly-made food from home in lunch boxes to office workers. They are formally known as MTBSA (Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association), but most people refer to them as the dabbawalas. The dabbawalas originated when India was under British rule. Since many British people who came to India did not like the local food, a service was set up to bring lunch to their offices straight from their home. The 100-odd dabbas (or lunch boxes) of those days were carried around in horse-drawn trams and delivered in the Fort area, which housed important offices. Today, businessmen in modern Mumbai use this service and have become the main customers of the dabbawalas. In fact, the 5,000-strong workforce (there are a handful of women) is so well-known that Prince Charles paid them a visit during his recent trip to India. Several academic institutions regularly invite the dabbawalas’ representatives for discussion, and to complement and enhance their academic content. At times, businesses find it useful to illustrate the application of how such a system uses Six Sigma principles to improve its operations.
The main reason people use the service of the dabbawalas is to eat a proper, home-prepared meal during lunch. Office-goers in Mumbai usually leave at 7 am and do not get back until after 7 pm. Most of them commute from suburbs of Mumbai and travel south to the main commercial area of Mumbai. The railway network during the peak hours is jam-packed with commuters hanging on the trains with one hand. Thus bringing one’s lunch at that time is not feasible. Commuters need to use one hand to hang on from the trains and hold on to their briefcases with their other hands. Most of the commuters cannot afford to eat outside every day. Offices often do not provide a canteen or cafeteria service for their employees. Eating on the roadside is unhealthy and unhygienic. Plus, the Indian diversity of food habits makes it very difficult to answer the specific need of each employee at the office canteen. By delivering to each employee his tiffin or lunch filled with food prepared at his home, the dabbawalas solve the problem for an estimated 200,000 people. They charge between Rs. 150 to Rs. 300 (roughly 3-7 USD), per dabba per month, depending on the location and collection time.
2. How it works
During a dabba’s journey from kitchen to consumer, it is handled by between three and twelve different deliverymen. For a dabbawala, the day begins at 9 am, with an hour spent collecting all the 20-25 dabbas in his area. He will have a pre-assigned set of homes under his area. He will either walk or travel on a bicycle to collect the lunch boxes. The households are expected to have the lunch box ready when he goes for collection. After the collection, he will go to the local train station (see Exhibit 4 for a map of the railway network in Mumbai) where he gathers with the other dabbawalas of his area. At the departure station, the dabbas will be shared out according to their next destinations. A detailed and elaborate codification process facilitates this sorting (see coding of the boxes in the next section).
Next, the dabbas are sorted according to the next train station and are handed off to the dabbawala who is responsible for that particular station for delivery to the final destination. By using a hub and spoke method, the dabbas are sorted and handed over to the next dabbawala who happens to be going to that particular area of the city. Based on which section of the area dabbas need to go, they are then distributed out to appropriate dabbawalas. For some of the areas where there are a large number of dabbas to be delivered, two or three dabbawalas are assigned who use a hand cart to push these to their respective owners. So by the time 12:30 pm rolls around, these dabbas are delivered to the appropriate owner, who at that point can enjoy a home-cooked meal. By the time a dabba reaches its final destination, it will be handled by four dabbawalas. It will be the same for the return of the empty dabbas after lunchtime. The same dabbawala who delivered at the offices of a specific area will collect them and reach the closest station. Then the same sharing-out will start again until the dabbawala of the residence area has gathered his 25-30 customers in order to begin his return delivery (see Exhibit 2 for a Process Map).
3. Organization Structure
The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (MTBSA) is a streamline 120-year-old organization with 4500 semi-literate members who provide quality door-to-door service to a large and loyal customer base. MTBSA is a three-tiered organization: the governing council (president, vice president, general secretary, treasure and nine directors); the mukadams; and, the dabbawala (see Exhibit 1 for the MTBSA Organization structure). MTBSA is also the uncontested institution that regulates activities of all the dabbawalas and solves possible conflicts between them or with customers or authorities. It also has the authority to fire “bad” dabbawalas or give fines to those who commit errors repeatedly.
The dabbawalas are divided into sub-groups of 15 to 25, each supervised by four mukadams. Each group is financially independent but coordinates with others for deliveries. The service could not exist otherwise. The process is competitive at the customers end and united at the delivery end. Each group is also responsible for day-to-day functioning. And, more importantly, there is no organizational structure, managerial layers or explicit control mechanisms (see Exhibit 5).
Apart from commitment and dedication, each dabbawala, like any other businessman, has to bring some capital with him. The minimum investment is two bicycles (approximately Rs. 4,000), a wooden crate for the tiffins (Rs. 500), at least one white, cotton kurta-pyjama (Rs. 600), and Rs. 20 for the trademark Gandhi topi (hat).
On average, one dabbawala can earn anywhere between Rs. 5000 to Rs. 6000 each month. Out of this, he contributes Rs. 15 per month to the association, which spends the money on community work, loans and providing venues for marriages at a discount.
Meetings are held every month to discuss customer service, investigate complaints from customers and solve other disputes within the organization. If a customer complains of poor service, the
association can shift the customer’s account to another dabbawala and no one is allowed to undercut each other.
The dabbawalas come from the rural area of Maharashtra, about 200 kilometers east of Mumbai. They are the descendants of soldiers of the legendary Maharashtrian warrior-king, Shivaji. They belong to the Malva caste and arrive in Mumbai from places like Rajgurunagar, Akola, Ambegaon, Junnar, and Maashi. They believe in employing people from their own communities and village elders recommend a relative from their village. They belong to families of small farmers and still work in the fields from time to time. Most of the dabbawalas leave Mumbai at harvest time, stopping the delivery service for a week. The trainees, coming from the villages, always belong to the family of an older dabbawala who will take care of the training.
The dabbawalas see themselves as migrants. Their wives, children, and older parents actually live in the villages where the men go visit about every three months since the journey is long and expensive for them. In Mumbai, they are a community of males only, living disseminated in the city slums or chawls. There is no idea for returning back to villages for these dabbawalas unless they are sick or have an accident, or are coming home for retirement.
The dabbas or the tiffin (lunch box) is a cylindrical box made of tin or sometimes aluminum. The “address” of the customer is painted on the top by the dabbawala. The coding system “speaks” to its bunch of illiterate workers who provide cheap labor and a committed workforce. The code, which is painted on the dabba top, is restricted first by the size of the top itself – six inches in diameter. The codes use color, dashes, crosses, dots and simple symbols to indicate the various parameters such as originating suburb, route to take, destination station, whose responsibility, the street, building, floor, etc. The work is known for its ingenuity, special codes and markings. For example, a "3" marked at the centre of the dabba indicates the destination, Nariman Point; "12 MT 7" in red along the sides indicates 12th floor, office number 7 at Mittal Tower; and "10" at the bottom means that it has to be unloaded at Churchgate. The "K" adjoining the "10" stands for the suburb Kandivili, the home of the dabba. In a city where the names of roads and even buildings change often, the dabbawalas have their own names and identifying marks. Apeejay House near Churchgate station is known as "Zendka" office and SNDT university buildings as "Khamba ka" office because both of them have flag posts. The Life Insurance Corporation office at Nariman Point, because of its curved structure, is identified as "Vakda," and the Income Tax offices at Marine Drive, because of its red color, is known as "Lal" (red).
The dabbawalas do not need to know the precise home address since they know the address in the collection area by heart. If a new customer appears in his area, the dabbawala will do the complete journey to check the address of delivery and check with other colleagues to see who has a free place in his crate to add one more dabba. Once the chain has been established and all the necessary stops for exchange decided, the address on the dabba is marked. (See Exhibit 5 – Markings of a dabba)
4. Sustainable Enterprise
A sustainable enterprise is one that is aligned and coexists with society, the environment, and financial opportunities in the marketplace through models and systems of strategy, leadership, innovation, and technology. Keeping this definition in mind, the dabbawalas of Mumbai operate a business enterprise that provides financial opportunity for migrant workers, and coexists socially by providing a service to large number of customers in Mumbai and is environment-friendly. This enterprise is probably the most environment-friendly, with zero percent fuel usage, using existing public transportation, bicycles and handcarts to get the job done.
The operations that dabbawalas are running are a very good example of how the base of pyramid is being used to help people in that same segment (see Exhibit 6 – Base of Pyramid). They are W06-001 3
providing employment to low-income members of the community and using the cheap labor to deliver lunches.
5. Critical Success Factors
What is the secret to the dabbawalas success? 5,000 dabbawalas make about 400,000 transactions per day for a cost of $4 per month, per dabba. The defect rate is as low as 1 in 6 million!
The success of the operation, in six sigma terms, lies in the extreme certainty and predictability of the operation, coupled with an equally simple design. Repetitive/predictable transactions with high visual content get mastered by human minds rather easily. Practically nothing changes for months in the entire course of operation, except an odd addition/deletion of containers and maybe a few persons. The number of variables (effective defect opportunities) is kept to a minimum. The only processes involved are sorting, loading, and unloading and they don’t need any technology or qualified personnel to operate.
Although the number of transactions per day is large, each person handles a limited number of transactions at a time. In addition, the dabbawalas typically do not deliver to the exact office of the client. Instead, they deliver it to the floor or the wing of the building and the client identifies his dabba from the lot based on his personal markings on the container, and puts it back in the lot after lunch. This shortens the address and error opportunities. The external container that houses the lunch box inside is of standard shape & size. The containers are placed in a single file in a wooden crate with the lids of the entire lot visible. Also, the dabbawalas never lose custody of the wooden crate throughout the delivery process, although they use two to three modes of transportation. In addition, the contents of this consignment are unique in that they are low-cost, perishable goods and hold no value to thieves.
Mumbai is an archipelago of several small islands, off the west coast of the state of Maharashtra, and is the most populous city in India with an estimated population of 13 million. In a way, the city is very similar to New York. The geography of the city is predominantly north-south, with people working in the central part and commuting outward to return home using the suburban rail network (see Exhibit 4). The dabbawalas’ elegant logistics system involves 25 km of public transport and 10 km of footwork involving multiple transfer points. Since the majority of the journey involves public transport, the meticulous timing of the dabbawalas is dependent on Mumbai’s extensive suburban rail network. The dabbawalas use the rail network very effectively by employing simple, straight routes, mostly north-south, and limit sorting to a few central points. This is key to the dabbawalas’ efficiency and success.
Another aspect critical to the dabbawalas success is the bonding between the dabbawalas. The dabbawalas have a remarkably flat organization with just three tiers. Here nobody is an employer or an employee. Each dabbawala considers himself a shareholder and entrepreneur. The dabbawalas are supervised by mukadams, experienced old-timers who are familiar with the logistics process. They play a key role in resolving disputes, training juniors and creating a bond between the dabbawalas. Most of the dabbawalas hail from the same region, hence, there is a brotherhood built on similarity and trust that cannot be found in the corporate world.
Success of a sustainable development project such as this can be measured in three aspects, namely:
Its a great way of learning from them. Managing everything from food stock, to cooking, to understandimg customised needs of customer to supply chain and distribution, pricing strategies etc. It a great way to understand that one doesnt need formal education ut simple common sense to be a good manager and have a systematic team