Mumbai Dabbawallas


Kiran Raveendran
Jr Faculty Member (QM/OM)
ICFAI National College
Kannur (Kerala)

Before cutting to the management mantras, let's understand a few facts about our dabbawallas. The origin of the Dabbawalas' lunch delivery service dates back to the 1890s during the British raj. At that time, people from various communities migrated to Mumbai for work. As there were no canteens or fast food centers then, if working people did not bring their lunch from home, they had to go hungry and invariably, lunch would not be ready when they left home for work. Besides, different communities had different tastes and preferences which could only be satisfied by a home-cooked meal. Recognizing the need, Mahadeo Havaji Bacche (Mahadeo), a migrant from North Maharashtra, started the lunch delivery service. For his enterprise, Mahadeo recruited youth from the villages neighboring Mumbai, who were involved in agricultural work. They were willing to come as the income they got from agriculture was not enough to support their large families, and they had no education or skills to get work in the city. The service started with about 100 Dabbawalas and cost the client Rs.2 a month. Gradually, the number of Dabbawalas increased and the service continued even though the founder was no more.

Their mission is to serve their customers -- who are mainly office goers -- by delivering their lunch boxes at their doorstep on time. They have 5,000 people on their payroll to ensure the prompt delivery of lunchboxes within Mumbai; these 'delivery boys' travel by local trains and use bicycles or walk to reach every nook and corner of Mumbai. The lunch boxes are delivered exactly at 12.30 pm. Later, the empty boxes are collected and taken back to the homes, catering services or hotels before 5 pm. In fact, the next time you forget to strap on your watch before leaving for office, don't be surprised to find it in the lunchbox container brought by the dabbawalla from your home! 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.

How the dabba is delivered

  • The first dabbawalla picks up the tiffin from home and takes it to the nearest railway station.
  • The second dabbawalla sorts out the dabbas at the railway station according to destination and puts them in the luggage carriage.
  • The third one travels with the dabbas to the railway stations nearest to the destinations.
  • The fourth one picks up dabbas from the railway station and drops them of at the offices. The process is reversed in the evenings.

Mumbai has an estimated 5,000 tiffin carriers -dabbawallas (literal translation- the can-carriers) delivering about 175,000 lunch boxes every day. The business is centiry old and evolved over a period of time - and the efficiency of the process have earned the dabbawallas a six-sigma rating from Forbes magazine.

The Six Sigma quality certification was established by the International Quality Federation in 1986, to judge the quality standards of an organisation. According to an article published in Forbes magazine in 1998, one mistake for every eight million deliveries constitutes Six Sigma quality standards. The Six-sigma rating means that they have a 99.99 % efficiency in delivering the lunch-boxes to the right people. That put them on the list of Six Sigma rated companies, along with multinationals like Motorola and GE. Achieving this rating was no mean feat, considering that the Dabbawalas did not use any technology or paperwork, and that most of them were illiterate or semiliterate. Apart from Forbes, the Dabbawalas have aroused the interest of many other international organizations, media and academia.

In 1998, two Dutch filmmakers, Jascha De Wilde and Chris Relleke made a documentary called 'Dabbawallahs, Mumbai's unique lunch service'. The film focussed on how the tradition of eating home-cooked meals, and a business based on that, could survive in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. In July 2001, The Christian Science Monitor, an international newspaper published from Boston, Mass., USA, covered the Dabbawalas in an article called 'Fastest Food: It's Big Mac vs. Bombay's dabbawallahs' . In 2002, Jonathan Harley, a reporter, did a story on the Dabbawalas with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). In 2003, BBC also aired a program on the Dabbawalas, which was part of a series on unique businesses of the world. In 2003, Paul S. Goodman and Denise Rousseau, both faculty at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration of Carnegie Mellon University, made their first full-length documentary called 'The Dabbawallas'.

Back home, the Dabbawalas were invited to speak at Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) meets and at leading Indian business schools such as IIM, Bangalore and Lucknow. Secretary of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust Gangaram Talekar and M Medge, a tiffin carrier contractor both essentially dabbawallas have been delivering lectures at premier institutes like the IIMs, CII conferences, Symbiosis institutes, WTC, for the last six years. Their indigenously developed tracking system has been studied by management institutes and gurus, and Prince Charles, when he came to Mumbai in 2003, met them and had a chat with them. So far, only two people in Mumbai, India's financial capital have been invited for the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. And they are not Mumbai's gliteratti - they are the dabbawallas - tiffin carriers - who are in the business of reaching home-cooked lunches to Mumbai's working millions.

Dabbawala methodology

  • "Error is horror," said Talekar while explaining the operational motto. 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.
  • 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.
  • Every dabbawalla gets a weekly off, usually on Sunday.
  • 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. In fact, Richard Branson, the maverick businessman who is never shy to promote himself and the Virgin brand, donned a Gandhi topi and dhoti (the dabbawallas' signature dress code), during the launch of Virgin's inaugural flights to Mumbai.
  • There are no specific selection criteria like age, sex or religion; however, I have never seen a female dabbawalla. The antecedents of the candidates are thoroughly verified and a new employee is taken into the fold for a six-month probation. After that period, the employment is regularised with a salary of Rs 5,000 a month.

Analysed from the Michael Porter's Five Forces Model

i. Threat of new entrants:

According to Porter, the threat new entrants is dangerous to any organisation as it can take away the market share the organisation enjoys. Started in 1880, the experience curve of the 125-year-old dabbawalla service serves as a huge entry barrier for potential competitors. Besides, it would be difficult to replicate this supply chain network that uses Mumbai's jam-packed local trains as its backbone.

ii. Current competition:

Porter's five forces theory states that strategy is determined by a unique combination of activities that deliver a different value proposition than competitors or the same value proposition in a better way.The dabbawallas do face competition from fast food joints as well as office canteens. However, since neither of these serve home food, the dabbawallas' core offering remains unchallenged. They have also tied up with many catering services and hotels to cater to the vast number of office goers.

iii. Bargaining power of buyers:

The delivery rates of the dabbawallas are so nominal (about Rs 300 per month) that one simply wouldn't bargain any further. Also, their current monopoly negates any scope of bargaining on the part of their customers. Thus, we encounter a perfect win-win combination for the customers as well as the dabbawallas.

iv. Bargaining power of sellers:

The dabbawallas use minimum infrastructure and practically no technology, hence they are not dependent on suppliers. Since they are a service-oriented organisation, they are not dependent on sellers to buy their product. Hence, sellers do not assume any prominence as would be the case in a product-oriented company. The strategy map framework in Porter's theory allows companies to identify and link together the critical internal processes and human, information and organisation capital that deliver the value proposition differently or better. Human capital is the greatest driving force in the dabbawalla community; as a result, they are not dependent on suppliers or technology, thus negating the seller's power in the equation.

v. Threat of a new substitute product or service:

As substitutes to home cooked food are not seen as a viable alternative in the Indian scenario, the threat to the dabbawalla service is not an issue at least in the foreseeable future. This gives them a leeway to probably expand their already existing network into newer cities as demand increases in these places as well.

Here is a clutch of statistics that reveals the task that the dabbawallas are up to: -

History                        : Started in 1880
Average Literacy Rate    : 8th Grade Schooling
Average Area Coverage  : 60 Km per Tiffin Box
Employee Strength        : 5000
Number of Tiffins           : 2,00,000 Tiffin Boxes,
                                   i.e., 4,00,000 transactions every day
Time Taken                  : 3 hours (9 am - 12 pm delivery of carriers,
                                   2 pm - 5 pm collection of empty carriers)
Cost of Service             : Rs. 200/- - Rs. 300/- per month
Turnover                      : Rs. 50 crore per month approximately

Kiran Raveendran
Jr Faculty Member (QM/OM)
ICFAI National College
Kannur (Kerala)

Source: E-mail June 12, 2007


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