Innovation Type 4 – Core process innovation by Dabbawalas

In part four of ‘ten part’ innovation series, we look at Mumbai Dabbawalas who have achieved six sigma quality in delivering lunch boxes without even knowing what it really means.

With zero technology backup their value addition comes from their robust core process. 

Mumbai city’s dabbawalas, now known the world over. 

The story behind the Mumbai Dabbawalas is significant for anyone, who wants to understand the importance of processes. Started in 1890 with 35 Dabbawalas (from the nearby villages), today there are 5000 Dabbawalas who deliver 2,00,000 Dabbas every day. Adding to that number is the pickup service they handle everyday which is a total of 4,00,000. This entire process takes a total of six hours covering 70-80 Kilometers every day. There is absolutely no technology used and no educational intelligence behind this success as 85% Dabbawalas are illiterate. With such a complex system they are able to deliver six sigma Quality, which means there could be only one error in 16 million transactions.  

The success of Dabbawalas comes from their core process, which provides true value to their offering. This core process is so robust that it has never broken till date. As it has got to do with food ‘timely delivery’ is the key for customer retention and having a business proposition around its delivery. Their estimated total revenue per month is 50 crore with each Dabbawala getting 3000-4000 rupees per month as salary. By using Mumbai public transport system and cycles to pickup Dabbas in the last leg of the chain, they are able to run the business successfully with zero overhead. Added to that, there is no strike record till date, which makes this system all the more reliable. 

(The coding system on the dabas) 

The heart of the system comes from the innovative coding mechanism and designing the delivery cycle around it. When a Dabbawala picks up the Dabba from his designated area, it has a unique code associated with it, which has details about the destination and how to reach in terms of railway stations. All Dabbas arrive at centralized station, which are sorted quickly and the destination Dabbawala picks them up for delivering at the appropriate location by reading the coding mechanism. As majority of the Dabbawalas are uneducated folks, they are appropriately guided in the initial days to that they read the coding correctly for an error free delivery. This core process of coding the following is in a disciplined way has earned the success for Dabbawalas, which they truly deserve.  

Here is how the timings work for Dabbawalas. Each Dabbawala collects Dabbas between 9:30 AM to 10:30 AM from homes, messes or hotels and boards the train which reaches Churchgate station 11:20 AM. These Dabbas are then sorted according to the destination and delivered by 12:30 AM, everything happens on time, without a single error. The same process is reversed for picking up empty boxes which reach the source by 4 PM. The first leg of 9:30 AM to 10:30 AM is the key time slot which they call as ‘war against time’. Because if any single Dabbawala fails at this point it would end up failing the whole chain as they are very closely connected and dependent.  

The example of Dabbawalas and their success is mainly because of their core processes and adhering to that as a practice by every individual Dabbawala. Their core offering of delivering lunch boxes on time is achieved simply because of their process. So next time when you are thinking of designing something – be it a software, greeting card or mud pot, think about having a core process around it for consistently delivering value for your customers.   
Tags: Mumbai Dabbawalas, core process

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