Saturday, April 14, 2007

Dabbawallas enthrall audience at Sri Sri Institute of Management Studies

~ MBA students invite Dabbawallas to be part of a Six Sigma Convention ~

Goa, April 12, 2007: A Six Sigma convention was organized by the students of the postgraduate diploma in business management (MBA) at Sri Sri Institute of Management Studies (SSIMS), Margao, on Thursday 12th April 2007 in association with Centurion Bank of Punjab. The convention was an initiative to contribute towards integrating supply chain management and operational concepts with a practical example of none other than the humble Dabbawallas of Mumbai.

At this convention, the speakers were not the normal pinstripe suit clad swanky corporate types who are often spotted in B-school auditoriums. Instead, they were two modest gentlemen dressed in a dhoti and wearing a Gandhi cap. Mr. Raghunath Medge and Mr. Gangaram Talekar, President and Secretary respectively of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust captured the imagination of delegates with their narration of how a motley gang of 5000 ensures the prompt delivery of over 2, 00,000 lunch boxes every day in the bustling metropolis of Mumbai. This was the first time that the Dabbawallas had visited Goa, after having delivered such seminars at the prestigious IIMs and IITs of India.

The convention was attended by representatives from the corporate arena and educational institutions in Goa. The Chief Guest was Mr. S. Ramachandran, Executive Director, Goa Carbon. The director of the institute, Dr D.D. Kare extended a warm welcome to the guest speakers and delegates and gave a brief introduction of the institute.

The talk was followed by the inauguration of an Industrial Museum, in the SSIMS courtyard. The museum depicts pictures and posters painted by students on topics such as evolution of management concepts, strategic human resource management, globalization and modern art.

The grand finale was a special lunch organized by the students with the Dabbawallas, which came packed in – not surprisingly – the traditional steel dabbas!! The sight of young students, faculty and the Dabbawallas sitting together at an informal lunch was simply exhilarating.


Hungry kya? What would you like: pizza from the local Domino's (30 minute delivery) or a fresh, hot meal from home? Most managers don't have a choice. It's either a packed lunch or junk food grabbed from a fast food outlet. Unless you live in Mumbai, that is, where a small army of 'dabbawalas' picks up 200,000 lunches from homes and delivers them to harried students, managers and workers on every working day. At your desk. 12.30 pm on the dot. Served hot, of course.

The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (MTBSA) is a streamlined 120-year-old organization with 5,000 semi-literate members providing a quality door-to-door service to a large and loyal customer base. The service was started by Mahadeo Havaji Bacche (Mahadeo). The success of MTBSA can be attributed to a twin process that combines competitive collaboration between team members with a high level of technical efficiency in logistics management.

Team Members

Descendants of soldiers of the legendary Maharashtrian warrior-king Shivaji, dabbawalas belong to the Malva caste. A large majority hail from places like Rajgurunagar, Akola, Ambegaon, Junnar and Maashi. The community is very close knit and if a vacancy arises, the new members recruited are normally relatives of already existing Dabbawallas. Education till standard seven is a minimum prerequisite. Apart from commitment and dedication, each dabbawala, like any businessman, has to bring some capital with him. The mini-mum investment is two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, at least one white cotton kurta-pyjama and Rs 20 for the trademark Gandhi topi.

Team work

The entire system depends on teamwork and meticulous timing. Tiffins are collected from homes between 7.00 am and 9.00 am, and taken to the nearest railway station. A color-coded notation on the tiffin box identifies its owner and destination. At various intermediary stations, they are hauled onto platforms and sorted out for area-wise distribution such that a single tiffin may change hands three to four times in the course of its daily journey.

Figure 1 Coding system demystified

At Mumbai's downtown stations, the last link in the chain, a final relay of dabbawalas fan out to the tiffins' destined bellies with the tiffin reaching the offices by 12.30 sharp. Lunch hour over, the whole process moves into reverse and the tiffins return to suburban homes by 6.00 pm.

To better understand the complex sorting process, let's take an example. At Vile Parle Station, there are four groups of dabbawalas, each has twenty members and each member services 40 customers. That makes 3,200 tiffins in all. These 3,200 tiffins are collected by 9.00 am, reach the station and are sorted according to their destinations by 10.00 am when the 'Dabbawala Special' train arrives.

The railway provides sorting areas on platforms as well as special compartments on trains traveling south between 10.00 am and 11.30 am. During the journey, these 80 dabbawalas regroup according to the number of tiffins to be delivered in a particular area, and not according to the groups they actually belong to. If 150 tiffins are to be delivered in the Grant Road Station area, then four people are assigned to that station, keeping in mind one person can carry no more than 35-40 tiffins.

During the earlier sorting process, each dabbawala would have concentrated on locating only those 40 tiffins under his charge, wherever they come from, and this specialisation makes the entire system efficient and error-free.

Elegant logistics

In a way, MTBSA's system is like the Internet. The Internet relies on a concept called packet switching. In packet switched networks, voice or data files are sliced into tiny sachets, each with its own coded address which directs its routing.

These packets are then ferried in bursts, independent of other packets and possibly taking different routes, across the country or the world, and re-assembled at their destination. Packet switching maximizes network density, but there is a downside: your packets intermingle with other packets and if the network is overburdened, packets can collide with others, even get misdirected or lost in cyberspace, and almost certainly not arrive on time.

Logistically, what the dabbawallah army achieves each day is nigh on impossible. Without computers or mobile phones, relying on a relay system fraught with the potential for dabbawallahs being late, ill or even dying en route, they weave across the city on a spider's web of routes. Churchgate Station is the hub of the dabbawallah network. At 11am, the station forecourt is packed as the lunch carriers pass their tiffin boxes down a supply chain that Forbes magazine rated with six stars - as reliable as GE or Motorola.

This rating means one mistake for every eight million deliveries is the norm. How do they achieve virtual six-sigma quality with zero documentation? For one, the system limits the routing and sorting to a few central points. Secondly, a simple color code determines not only packet routing but packet prioritizing as lunches transfer from train to bicycle to foot.

Competitive collaboration

MTBSA is a remarkably flat organization with just three tiers: the governing council (president, vice president, general secretary, treasurer and nine directors), the mukadams and the dabbawalas. Its first office was at Grant Road. Today it has offices near most railway stations. Surprisingly MTBSA is a fairly recent entity: the service is believed to have started in the 1880s but officially registered itself only in 1968. Growth in membership is organic and dependent on market conditions.

Here nobody is an employer and none are employees. Each dabbawala considers himself a shareholder and entrepreneur. The Dabbawalas are divided into sub-groups of fifteen to 25, each supervised by four mukadams. Experienced old-timers, the mukadams are familiar with the colors and coding used in the complex logistics process.

Their key responsibility is sorting tiffins but they play a critical role in resolving disputes; maintaining records of receipts and payments; acquiring new customers; and training junior dabbawalas on handling new customers on their first day.

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 important, there is no organizational structure, managerial layers or explicit control mechanisms. The rationale behind the business model is to push internal competitiveness.

Building a clientele

The range of customers includes students (both college and school), entrepreneurs of small businesses, managers, especially bank staff, and mill workers.

New customers are generally acquired through referrals. Some are solicited by dabbawalas on railway platforms. Addresses are passed on to the dabbawala operating in the specific area, who then visits the customer to finalize arrangements. Today customers can also log onto the website to access the service.

Service charges vary from Rs 150 to Rs 300 per tiffin per month, depending on location and collection time. Money is collected in the first week of every month and remitted to the mukadam on the first Sunday. He then divides the money equally among members of that group. It is assumed that one dabbawala can handle not more than 30-35 customers given that each tiffin weighs around 2 kgs. And this is the benchmark that every group tries to achieve.

Typically, a twenty member group has 675 customers and earns Rs 100,000 per month which is divided equally even if one dabbawala has 40 customers while another has 30. Groups compete with each other, but members within a group do not. The logic behind this is that one dabbawala could collect 40 tiffins in the same time that it takes another to collect 30. From his earnings of between Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000, every dabbawala contributes Rs15 per month to the association. The amount is utilized for the community's upliftment, loans and marriage halls at concessional rates.

If a customer complains of poor service, the association can shift the customer's account to another dabbawala. No dabbawala is allowed to undercut another. Before looking into internal disputes, the association charges a token Rs 100 to ensure that only genuinely aggrieved members interested in a solution come to it with their problems, and the officials' time is not wasted on petty bickering.


Pradip Thakker, “Mumbai's amazing dabbawalas”, 2005

Lectures By Dabbawalas,

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