This is a story about a 119- year old successful business operation now carried out by 5000 people in Mumbai.
The Dabbawalas date back to late 19th century when Bombay’s rapidly growing population needed feeding at work. More than a century later Mumbai’s middle classes still prefer their chapattis cooked at home supplied at the right time and place by the most indigenous distribution systems in the world.
A Dabbawala is a person whose job is to collect lunch boxes from homes, which are packed in an aluminum container, known locally as ‘dabba’, which they deliver to customers in their respective offices. Started way back in 1890, today it is a registered Charitable Trust with 5000 Employees, each of them a share holder. The trust, Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Supply Trust has a turnover of nearly 50 crores. Each dubbawala earns Rs.5000/- to Rs.6000/- per month and what makes them unique is that, they have never gone on strike in the last 119 years!
Every morning the Dabbawala visits each home client, collects the lunch boxes, and then transports them through the suburban rail network. They are then handed over to another group of Dubbawalas assembled at different railway stations. Each container of lunch boxes bears a distinguishing number and is then sorted out, allocated to each pick-up man for the onward journey, and handed out to the rightful owners.
These lunch boxes are delivered exactly at 12.30 PM on every working day without fail, despite hurdles during the monsoon season or a strike announcement made by a political party. Again, in the evening the empty container’s are collected from offices and delivered back to homes before 5.00 PM for another round of journey the next day morning. On an average, every tiffin box changes hands four times and travels 60-70 kilometers in its journey to reach its eventual destination!
Can you believe that, more than 200,000 lunch boxes are transported to and fro every day ( i.e, 400,000 transactions every day ) by a dabbawala force of about 5000 people. What’s stunning is the fact that in this delivery of 200,000 lunch boxes everyday, there is only one mistake in every 16 million deliveries which makes a Six Sigma performance of 99.9999!
In today’s globalization that boasts of modern transport system, this unique human feat of delivering lunch boxes, using a non-polluting and cost-effective primitive mode of transport like bicycles and pullers of wooden carts, is unparalleled anywhere in the world.
Have a look at this video about daily routine of Dubbawalas
The Dabbawalas are semi-literate, but their efficient delivery and time management skills would shame our professionally managed corporates. The American business magazine ‘Forbes’ has given a six-sigma performance rating to them. The dabbawalas were also featured in a ‘BBC’ documentary, ‘Ripley’s Believe it or not’ and mentioned in the ‘Guinness World Records’. The Harvard and IIM students have been learning about them in case studies.
The Dabbawalas achieved worldwide fame when Prince Charles, during one of his visits to Mumbai, paid a special visit to them and had shown keen interest in how they worked. He was so impressed with them that later, during his wedding, he extended an invitation to these Dabbawalas!
The Dabbawala story is an inspiring success story and demonstrates that simple ideas, when executed with discipline and dedication, can bring amazing results at the base of the pyramid. “Mumbai’s Dabbawala’s are providing lessons to Corporate India on Leadership, Honesty & Integrity, Team Work, Supply Chain Management and Time Management. And above all it is a classic example of how sustained success can lead to fame.