The dabbawalas of Mumbai

An organisation of mostly illiterate men offers lessons in efficiency to Fortune 500 companies and Ivy league management programme students.

EVER since the tiffin men of Mumbai, India, appeared in an episode of Planet Food on Discovery Travel & Living (now the Travel & Living Channel), I have been curious about them. Daily, on the streets of Mumbai, 5,000 men known as dabbawalas routinely deliver home cooked lunches in tiffin carriers to 200,000 working people all over the city!

“Dabba” means lunch box or tiffin. The practice is 120 years old, beginning during the British rule in India in 1890, when British army officers wanted hot, homemade food delivered to the office, and so they wouldn’t have to eat the spicy local fare in restaurants.

The system has remained the same till today: Lunch is cooked at home, picked up by a tiffin man between 9am and 10am, and is then passed quickly through a series of train and push cart transfers that get the still warm rice, curry, roti and sweet treat efficiently to the customer’s office.

One tiffin carrier changes hands at least four times between home and office. Each tiffin man can easily carry up to 40 tiffin carriers in a tray balanced on his head or arranged in a push cart.

Using a simple system of colour coding the tiffin carriers that has not changed in more than a century, the dabbawalas pride themselves on punctuality and zero mistakes.

In fact, staggering statistics from a survey done in 1998 show that there is only one mistake in every six million deliveries, which is a Six Sigma rating (a measure of quality that strives for near perfection for business organisations). Forbes business magazine awarded the Six Sigma certificate to the dabbawalas in 2002.

In 2001, the dabbawalas received an ISO 9001 certification for service to the nation. They were given the ISO9000: 2000 in 2005 by the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand for excellence in service.

And all this for an organisation of men who are barely literate and who use hardly a byte of technology!

The dabbawala who brought change

The dabbawalas usually work in groups of 40; each group is independent and functions as a cooperative, so each member is invested in the success of the business.

“Everyone is a shareholder,” points out Manish Tripathi, the 35-year-old chairman and patron of the Dabbawala Foundation, Mumbai, at an interview in Selangor recently (he was in Malaysia to give a talk at Pos Malaysia’s “Inspiring Innovators” series of lectures). He also heads the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust.

Manish started as a dabbawala six years ago. He was working in a small firm at the time, without any particular aim in life. With his group of dabbawalas, he worked along the city’s Marine railway line, gathering at Churchgate station for the noon deliveries.

Wearing the dabbawala’s traditional Gandhi topi, he and his group members would sort and organise the tiffin boxes that arrived from the suburbs by train. Dividing up the boxes between them, each would sling 40-odd boxes onto his bicycle handlebars, load them onto push carts or balance them on the head on long trays. Then it was on to the designated office complexes in the city.

Today, Manish no longer delivers tiffins. He is part of something much bigger: He is taking the dabbawalas to the forefront of the business world.

“When I first started being a dabbawala, I didn’t know what this thing (motivational speaking) was. At the time, I just wanted to contribute in a small way to the dabbawalas.

“Then, after Prince Charles visited us in 2003, he brought the attention of the world to what we do. We call it the Prince Charles factor,” he says with a smile.

Though he is educated, Manish was not computer savvy but decided to familiarise himself with computers and the World Wide Web: “I surfed the Internet and realised there was a lot of information out there. I thought to myself, why not have a website where people can find all the information about dabbawalas?

“At that point, I did not know what effect it would have,” he says.

Manish launched the portal in 2003 and in 2006 started a text messaging system that enabled the tiffin men to take orders more efficiently. At the website, Manish put up the history of his colleagues, what they’re about, how they work and their rates. On the day that the site was launched, it was visited by 75,000 people!

“Since then, we have had billions of visitors and the number is still growing,” says Manish, adding that, “I started it so people can get connected”.

“Very soon after that, we started getting invitations from various organisations to speak about our experiences. And these organisations were willing to contribute financially to the dabbawalas. It wasn’t until six months later that I realised that what was happening was something big!”

To date, Manish has spoken at Stanford University in the United States, Rotman University in Canada and to various Fortune 500 companies, often multiple times at each institution. Virgin Airline owner and entrepreneur Richard Branson is a great fan; he donned the Gandhi topi and the dhoti worn by the dabbawalas during the launch of Virgin Airline’s inaugural flight from London to Mumbai in 2005.

“The whole experience has forced me to amend myself, to better myself,” says Manish.

“I was just an ordinary man and I did not have much courage. But when people started to invite me to speak about our experience, and I saw that people have so much respect for what we do, I developed myself into a good speaker.

“There are a lot of institutes that conduct lectures on how to become a speaker and charge a lot of money for it. But what I know I learned only from my fellow dabbawalas: commitment matters, qualifications don’t.

“When I started speaking more, I became bolder, more honest and built my own character. I definitely had the commitment to be the best that I can be. And when I see people respecting me and what I do, I started to have respect for myself, and that helped to shape who I am today.

“Today, all across the world, people are inviting me to speak. They are keen to talk to me,” says Manish proudly.

Challenging changes

“But I don’t consider myself successful,” he says in apparent contradiction before going on to explain: “Whatever name and fame that we have acquired because of our consistent hard work, the visit of celebrities like Prince Charles and Richard Branson, that success has not been converted to benefit our members.

“Our dabbawalas are doing a great job and they deserve something better, but their reward is not commensurate with their efforts.”

There was a lot of conflict between Manish and the members of his group over the changes he tried to bring about. In fact, there is still a lot of resistance to what he’s doing, he says.

“We give out push carts to our members and try to bring in change by starting with our speaking engagement and website, but there are still lots of problems like social security and elevating our members’ standard of living.

“The bad part is that they are not aware. They don’t want it. If someone is satisfied with whatever he has got, then that is the bad part. I want to make them realise they are meant for something better,” insists Manish.

But if “their reward is not commensurate with their efforts”, if money doesn’t drive the dabbawalas’ excellence, what does?

The fact that the dabbawalas overwhelmingly belong to one sect, the Vakari, from the farming community of Pune, is one driving factor, it seems.

“We’re all from the same community, everyone is a Marathi. That bond ties us together stronger than anything else.

“Another thing is that the dabbawalas are not educated and mostly illiterate. We have no other career opportunities; this is the only thing we can do. In a way, we work so hard because we have no other choice,” explains Manish.

But he wants to open his colleagues’ eyes to possibilities.

“Now they are content with what they have, which is why they’re content to do this every day.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have no wish to change how things work. As far as operations are concerned, I think they are optimised for the environment that is there. In that regard, I do not expect, and I do not wish, to bring in any change. I am not looking for that.

“I am only looking for the social changes that can benefit the members, the betterment of their lives.

“Let me tell you that money is certainly not the issue. They earn enough to sustain their lives. Although they’re not earning a lot, they’re satisfied. If somebody came and tried to give them more money, they would say no,” he says – they have their pride!

What Manish is trying to do now is to make life a little easier for the dabbawalas with thfoundation, which functions as a kind of social security fund for the men and their families.

As mentioned before, each group of dabbawalas is independent from each other. If a member of one group has a bicycle or push cart break down or stolen, a replacement will be bought only when all the members of that group can contribute money to do so. Most of the time, that either doesn’t happen or takes a long time, which means that group is handicapped. With the funds Manish gets from speaking engagements and through the foundation, he is able to step in and provide what is needed by the dabbawalas to do their job.

Manish relishes being able to do this, and he always adds a little pomp and ceremony every time he presents the bicycles and carts: “I will invite a few elders to witness the event, give them flowers, gifts and sweets and make it special. They deserve this, as nobody has done this for them before,” he says.

But no good deed goes unpunished, they say ... Manish relates the incident of the dabbawala who got a job with General Electric.

“I was delivering a lecture at GE and I spoke to the chairman of the organisation and told him there was a member who was interested in working for them. He went for the interview, got the job and started working for them. Imagine, a dabbawala working for an MNC (multinational company)!

“That sounds very good, but when news got out about this, thousands of our members came to me and started fighting with me. They said to me, ‘What are you doing? If you give other jobs to everybody, then who will do the (dabbawala’s) job?’

“I told them this is not the case. I will only help the people who ask me to help; if they want to better themselves, then I will do all I can to help,” says Manish.

“You have to understand that when an organisation has been running for the past 120 years in a certain way, and if you want to bring in change to it, it is very difficult. Some of the things I have done have benefited the members already but others will take more time.”

The heart remains the same

“This is a sustainable organisation. No matter what happens in this world, whether I am here or not, it will still go on,” insists Manish.

“The dabbawalas will keep doing their job, it will go on forever, the brand value is huge and the need is there.”

His ultimate goal is to get the full cooperation of all the dabbawalas, but he realises this will be a long process.

“I do not think that any change can be brought about without hardship. Anybody who says that he wants to change something should be ready to accept criticism and he should be ready to face hardship, because change and ease never go hand in hand.

“But I am happy to do what I do, because we cannot achieve everything in one day. Hopefully, in 10 to 15 years, our members will realise they can make something more out of their lives,” he says.

In the meantime, Manish is working on a book about the dabbawalas: “I already have the content for it. There will be two parts: one on our organisation and its history, the other on 30 management lessons from the dabbawalas,” he says.

Though Ivy League universities and Fortune 500 companies all over the world hanker after the dabbawalas’ secret to success, coming out in droves to hear Manish speak nowadays, the heart of the organisation remains anchored in hard work and a team effort.

Using an almost instinctive supply chain management methodology, the dabbawalas toil day in and day out to do what they do best: delivering dabbas correctly and on time to their customers.

Article type: metered
User Type: anonymous web
User Status:
Campaign ID: 1
Cxense type: free
User access status: 0
Subscribe now to our Premium Plan for an ad-free and unlimited reading experience!

Others Also Read