Tiffin on time with no hiccups


  • Business
  • Sunday, 16 Feb 2003

By SUNIL KATARIA

BOMBAY: Janardhan Gowande is a barely literate Indian delivery boy clad in traditionally baggy pyjamas and a Nehru cap who spends most of his day on a bicycle ferrying lunch boxes across this bustling city. 

Arjun Sahni is a business executive in khaki chinos and a blue shirt who sits in his air-conditioned office in New Delhi poring over spreadsheets to chalk out business strategies. 

Gowande and Sahni are thousands of miles apart but their worlds came together at a seminar titled “Leading people without suits and ties” held by a business lobby in the Indian capital. 

For years, Bombay's legendary lunch-delivery system run by a legion of mostly illiterate dabbawallahs was an institution that didn’t go beyond the city’s borders. 

Now the low-tech network, known for its clockwork precision delivering dabbas (metal lunch boxes), or tiffin (lunch), is giving tips to the high corporate flyers on the basics of management and planning. 

“We taught them about our simple system based on teamwork, like the Indian cricket team,” said Raghunath Medge, head of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust and Association. 

“It works so well because we’re all a bit like shareholders in a company. There are no owners and workers and there are no middlemen either.” 

He was in the western city of Ahmedabad at the Indian Institute of Management, the country’s premier business school, to speak about the intricacies of the network of 5,000 carriers who deliver lunch to 175,000 people across Bombay. 

“We taught them our coding system which allows us to deliver lunch boxes without making any mistakes. Now, we’ve been invited by a leading elevator company to teach them,” said Medge. 

Pankaj Chandra, professor of Production and Quantitative Methods at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, said students wanted to learn from Medge how the dabbawallahs “managed operational hurdles and still sustained quality.” 

The Bombay institution – consisting of a home-made meal of rice, dal or lentils, Indian bread and sometimes salad and yoghurt – has even survived stiff competition from western fast-food chains that set up shop in the 1990s. 

The dabbawallah network is divided into clusters of about 20 men who work on a relay system. 

It begins with the first group who pick up the aluminium boxes from homes or a central kitchen and cart them to railway stations on bicycles. 

At the other end of the line, hundreds of more dabbawallahs pour out of railway stations with long wooden crates packed with the lunch boxes that are handed over to an army of waiting delivery boys who fan out on their bicycles to offices across the city. 

“One of the main problems is we have to constantly ride a bicycle loaded with lunch boxes, then leave the bicycle down and climb all those floors of skyscrapers,” said Gowande. 

“Once you have the boxes with you, you can’t even stop to go to the toilet because if you’re late by even five or 10 minutes the chain gets disrupted.” 

The dabbawallahs use a code system based on colours, symbols and numbers to identify the boxes and their destination -- and though there are no addresses, they almost never make a mistake. 

For example, a box with a 1M11 code means the lunch is being ferried by delivery boy Number One to the 11th floor of Maker Towers in the city’s business district of Nariman Point. 

A few years ago, US business magazine Forbes gave the delivery boys a 6 Sigma performance rating, or a 99.999999 percentage of correctness – which means one error in six million transactions. 

It isn’t an easy job being a dabbawallah: his day starts before 9am when the lunch boxes are collected from homes and brought to the nearest railway station. 

They then have to battle a crush of people in sweltering stations, broken elevators which often force them to climb dozens of flights, torrential monsoon rains and speeding taxi drivers that threaten to upset their tiffin carts. 

Still, the lunch boxes reach offices between 11.45am and 12.30pm. 

“What’s amazing is in the past three years, they’ve never missed a single day,” said Vinod Nalawade, a computer scientist in Bombay. 

“My lunch has never arrived late in all these years.” - Reuters  

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