The Amazing Dabbawalas
By dhanushag | Published: February 03 2010
Five thousand semi literate men, collect and deliver over 200,000 lunch boxes across office spaces in Mumbai city in a matter of a few hours, in a unique, diligent and highly efficient technique. This is how they do it.
They’ve achieved something that no other commercial organisation strive towards. The Mumbai Dabbawala’s, an organisation that has spent the last century or so delivering tiffin boxes across Mumbai, have Prince Charles as their brand ambassador, and Richard Branson, CEO, Virgin endorsing them. The Chairman of the Dabbawala Organisation, Manish Tripathi, and Honorary Dabbawala Ramesh. S. Borhade were in Bangalore recently to be felicitated by another century old organisation, C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons.
Though, the operations are close to 125 years old, Dabbawala’s have gained recent popularity for their meticulous and timely delivery pattern that puts most multi-national corporations to shame. They haven’t been on a strike in the last 116 years, and since their rise to fame. Manish Tripathi, has been lecturing at various business management schools, including the Harvard Business School and other colleges across the globe explaining the finer nuances of the business model and why it is so efficient and successful. The fact that every Dabbawala is a share holder of the organisation adds to its enterprise appeal.
Though the work of a dabbawala sounds simple, it is actually a highly specialized trade which has become integral to Mumbai's culture. Tripathi gave an educational, inspiring and humorous presentation to the employees at CKC. Walking on to the stage with his customary white cap, with a tiffin box in his hand, he shouted out to the crowd, “Good Evening CKC”. The dabbawala’s delivery system began even before the invention of various complicated management jargons. “We believe that work is worship, time is money and unity is power. We want the world to know about what we do. Otherwise I would have been in Mumbai this very moment delivering lunch boxes. Why do we exist? The answer is simple, as long as people want to eat hot, home cooked food and not pizzas and other junk food, there will be a dabbawala” said Tripathi.
Chairman of the Dabbawala Organisation, Manish Tripathi, and Honorary Dabbawala Ramesh. S. Borhade at the felicitation by C. Krishnaiah Chetty & Sons
They work in a twin process that combines competitive collaboration between team members with a high level of technical efficiency in logistics management. After the customer leaves for work, his or her lunch is packed into tiffin provided by the dabbawala. A color-coded notation on the handle identifies its owner and destination. Once the dabbawala has picked up the tiffin, he moves fast using a combination of bicycles, trains and sometimes on his feet. “If it weren’t for the timely working of the Mumbai local trains we would have stopped functioning ages ago.”
Lunch boxes are collected from homes between 7.00 am and 9.00 am, and taken to the nearest railway station. At various intermediary stations, they are hauled onto platforms and sorted out for area-wise distribution, so that single tiffin could change hands three to four times in the course of its daily journey. Mumbai's Downtown stations, the last link in the chain, a final relay of dabbawalas fan out to the tiffins' destined bellies. Lunch hour over, the whole process moves into reverse and the tiffins return to suburban homes by 6.00 pm.
Tripathi did not flinch once when asked as to how the dabbawala’s are so eager to work. “Almost all the dabbawala’s are illiterate. Managing educated people is very difficult. Most of them have studied till class 2, and some have a double MBA- they have studied till class 8. The rest of them are ‘Thumbs- up’ or angootha chap (street lingo for an illiterate person who uses a thumb impression for his signature). For example, it’s easier to tell a dabbawala to deliver tiffin to Church Street, than an MBA graduate. Before I even finish my request, the dabbawala would be running to his location, whereas the MBA graduate would ask- where is the process? Followed by a million other questions and in our business we don’t have time to waste” said Tripathi.
The dabbawala’s originated when a person named Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started the lunch delivery service in 1890 with about 35 men. “A Parsi banker, who I think loved his wife very much, employed a person to bring home cooked wife to his work site, and Bache visualised a future where people would resort to taking too much junk food, and he went to Pune where farmers were looking to migrate to Mumbai for work. He hired them, to work for the association” said Tripathi.
Though he made constant jibes at MBA graduates, he said he holds deep respect for them. “There are two kinds of people in the world. One is with an MBA degree, and the other one without an MBA degree. An MBA person is one who converts problems into solutions” added Tripathi. The recorded error rate of a dabbalwa is one in 16 million transactions, and they charge a monthly fee of Rs. 350 for their services. Speaking about their Six Sigma Certification, and ISO 2000 Certification, Tripathi said, “our men are very simple, when they heard Six Sigma, they thought it is something very valuable made of gold and silver. But when we got a piece of paper, we said, our taxi fare to this place has been wasted. Now, that certificate is lying somewhere inside a cupboard gathering dust”
The dabbawala’s are extremely disciplined in their system. If they do not wear their customary white cap to work, they are fined Rs. 100, and arriving to work on time is a must. If the customer continues to be late with keeping the tiffin ready at the time when the dabbawala arrives at the household, they refuse service within a week. There are four women employees in the dabbawala organisation.
Speaking about the Dabbawala’s relationship with Prince Charles, Tripathi said, “Prince Charles is our true brand ambassador. He was the first one to take notice of us. We were invited to his second wedding, and I think that’s why it’s lasting long as well. All the media attention that we got later was because of him. We call it the Prince Charles effect. The second person whom I have a lot of respect for is Virgin Ltd. CEO Richard Branson. He is another species all together. He travelled in the local trains along with us. Quite honestly, to me all white people look the same. But, he said that he challenges all his employees to work like the dabbawalas.”
Though, they have been resorting to traditional work techniques for so many years, they have recently become a lot more tech savvy. Through the dabbawala website, www.mydabbawala.com
people can place their orders.