A business lesson from my Indian entrepreneur heroes – the Dabbawallas

Photo credit: Meena Kadri

The unstoppable Dabbawallas of Mumbai are always on schedule. No excuse. The secret is pure dedication and a 135 years old no-tech system. The accuracy in daily delivery of 200000 boxes of Indian love -is unbelievable 99,999%. No wonder Sir. Richards Branson wanted to try it himself.

On my very first visit to Mumbai, I noticed the thousands of white dressed men with Gandhi-caps, rushing out of train stations, cutting street corners on their bicycles, yelling -as if something was on fire. Everyone else stepped aside to give way, well aware the wallas does not stop for anyone or anything.

What I witnessed is an incredible logistic operation that takes place in Mumbai every day. The concept is also an example that innovation isn’t always required, neither is high-tech.

Metal- or plastic boxes (Dabbas or Tiffin’s) are transported from 200000 homes in the suburbs -to offices around the city.

 

What’s in the boxes?

It’s food. Healthy home cooked lunch, made with love. From the housewives -to the working family members downtown, so they can enjoy their favorite food -at the office. Delivered by one of the 5000 “lunch box delivery men” in Mumbai.

I found it amazing, and the more I have learned -the more impressed I am.

 

Every day, 5000 Dabbawallas deliver 200 000 lunch-boxes in Mumbai. Transported from the suburb homes -to the offices in the city.

Photo credit: Meena Kadri
Photo credit: Meena Kadri

The lunch boxes are picked up in the homes by a Dabbawalla, taken to sorting areas where it is handed over to the next one. It’s loaded onto trains, and someone else even get the box out at the right station, where another person will pick it up and deliver it to the right office building, and eventually to the right person. A lunchbox can change hands 4 times and travel up to 70 km. The Dabbawallas are hardly using any motorized vehicles. The transport is done on foot, by bicycles and the local trains in Mumbai.

 

On time – every time.

You can be sure that before 1 AM, all 200 000 boxes are delivered. That is only half the job. In the afternoon, the process is reversed. Yes, it’s true. When the lunch is consumed, the Walla is back to pick up the empty Tiffin, and take it the same route back home. It’s a 9 hour work cycle.

 

The system behind the operation.

Many of the Dabbawallas are illiterate, so you won’t find any addresses written on the boxes. Color codes, symbols and figures does the job. The boxes goes from hand to hand, and part of the secret lies in cutting one big task into several smaller. Each of the wallas having a clear and limited responsibility, everything taking place in his own “backyard”.

tiffins-mumbai-dabbawallas
This is a typical tiffin (lunch -box) with the world known coding painted on it. Always delivered in time. Photo credit: Meena Kadri

 

 One of the best logistic operation in the world.

Truly fascinating right? My first thought was that an enormous number of people must be receiving some other persons food (interesting enough), or not getting anything at all. I was wrong. The accuracy of this no-tech operation is the most interesting of it all. The delivery chain introduced in 1880, without any clear documentation of the process, only fails in one of 6 million deliveries. 99,999 % accuracy is something very special. So, believe it or not, these illiterate men of Mumbai actually qualify for a Six Sigma status.

 

What’s the recipe?

They are as one big family, extremely loyal to each other. They are very enthusiastic and follow a strict code of conduct. They are organized in teams, extensively covering for each other if anything goes wrong en route. Their motto is “Error is horror”.

5000 synchronized entrepreneurs.

Noone is employed. Everyone is their own boss and an equal shareholder in the very flat structured Dabbawalla organization. The income is split equally. If something fails, everyone is affected. So, nothing fails.

 

The most famous Dabbawalla is Sir. Richards Branson.

He must be as fascinated as me, since he spent a full day with the Dabbawallas, also delivering a large Tiffin to his Virgin employees in Mumbai.

 

So, what can we learn from it?

I believe a good start is:

1-don’t underestimate the result of dedication, pride and enthusiasm
2-put the client first
3-deliver whatever it takes
4-keep things simple
5-not fall into the technology trap

 

I will do as Branson.

I have made the arrangements, so when in Mumbai next time, I will work as a Dabbawalla for a day, making a real delivery. I have already bought my white Gandhi cap.