Clad in dhoti, gandhi cap with a large tray of steel tiffins is the unassuming Mumbai dabbawala who is set out to his work with a strong commitment – To serve the community. The Dabbawala is a common sight for Mumbaikars. Though outdated modes of transport like its the push cart or the large tray full of tiffins, or the tiffin-laden bicycles, this system of delivering lunch tiffins to lakhs of people across the city has been going on from 19th century, when there was a huge demand for home made lunch tiffins to be delivered to a growing population of working middle class people. And it does not show any signs of dying.

The Mumbai Dabbawala system has been been a case study for management students as well as acknowledged highly by Prince Charles and Richard Branson during their visit to the country. What followed was a Six Sigma certified gradation for its efficient services.

How Does Mumbai Dabbawala System Work

More than 175,000 boxes are transported every day in the city. So from the point of origin to sorting out the tiffins to transportation through the busy Mumbai traffic, local trains and bicycles, till delivering the right tiffin to the right person, all the steps are are executed with precision and team work through all the seasons. And it all moves quite punctually without any delay and the tiffins are delivered by around 12:30 p.m.

Later, the empty boxes are collected and taken back to the homes, catering services or hotels before 5 pm. On an average, every tiffin box changes hands four times and travels 60-70 kilometres in its journey to reach its eventual destination. Each box is differentiated and sorted along the route on the basis of markings on the lid, which give an indication of the source as well as the destination address. Each tiffin box is colour-coded and marked with simple acronyms such as ‘HO’ for hospital, according to its final destination.

Mumbai Dabbawala Business Model

The Dabbawala Association has laid down very stringent rules for its employees, which can surprise even the largest corporate sectors in the country. This is one of the reasons for its existence despite the advent of many fastfood joints and canteens services. And as these new competitions do not offer home made food, the dabbawalas have an advantage. Some of the rules are as follows:

1. The dabbawallas must be extremely disciplined. Consuming alcohol while on duty attracts a fine of Rs 1,000. Unwarranted absenteeism is not tolerated and is treated with a similar fine.

2. In the event of a dabbawalla meeting with an accident en route, alternative arrangements are made to deliver the lunch boxes. For example, in a group of 30 dabbawallas catering to an area, five people act as redundant members; it is these members who take on the responsibility of delivering the dabbas in case of any untoward happenings.

3. The Gandhi cap serves as a potent symbol of identification in the crowded railway stations. Not wearing the cap attracts a fine of Rs 25.

4. There are no specific selection criteria like age, sex or religion. The antecedents of the candidates are thoroughly verified and a new employee is taken into the fold for a six-month probation.

5. It is interesting to note there is no retirement age, and any person can work till he is fit enough to carry on the tasks required of him.

Dabbawala System Impresses Prince Charles

The BBC has produced a documentary on dabbawalas, and Prince Charles, during his visit to India in November 2003, visited them (he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility). Most remarkably in the eyes of many Westerners, the success of the dabbawala trade has involved no advanced technology.

When Prince Charles took his wedding vows with his long-time lover Camilla Parker, the dabbawalas of Mumbai send him their good wishes. A group of more than 500 dabbawalas from the city gifted a nine-yard saree to the princess-consort and a Maharashtrian turban to the Prince for their wedding.

Richard Branson meets the Dabbawalas

Richard Branson, the chairman of the Virgin Atlantic Airlines also met with the Dabbawalas, when he visited India for the promotions and launch of his airlines in India. Owing to the tremendous publicity, some of the dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in top business schools of India, which is very unusual.

What the Dabbawalas System Teaches?

(Excerpts from Harsha Venkatesh’s article)
Managers and executives alike spend a lot of their valuable time learning various concepts in people and time management. Newer mechanisms like Customer Relationship Management, etc, have been developed to assist executives in the same. But, in the midst of implementing technology and IT, basic principles in people management, sustainable relationship development and customer satisfaction have lost their meaning.

Our friendly dabbawallas are a perfect example of an important principle of both business and management — the thirst to serve customers in a simple yet effective fashion without falling into the technology trap. I think this is an aspect which needs to be re-learnt and implemented in any organization today.


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