to a grinding halt at lunchtime, say R Swaminathan and Geetanjali Minhas
A t 1pm sharp, Babu Rao Chorge, dressed in a white shirt, loose white trousers and sporting a white cloth cap, delivers Samyak Chattopadhyay’s home-cooked lunch to his office in Churchgate, which is a 40-minute train journey from his house in Vile Parle, in the western Indian city of Mumbai.
In the 15 years that he has been on the job, Babu Rao has never been late and not once has he misplaced Samyak’s lunch. It’s not that the man works for a pizza chain that promises to deliver food on time or else it’ll be free; or a multinational courier company that depends on sophisticated logistics and computer technology to ensure it delivers packages on schedule.
Babu Rao, 35, and barely literate, is part of a group of 5,000 people, largely men, called dabbawallahs (lunch box carriers, in Hindi) who, using a coding system that is a mix of coloured dots, letters and numbers, deliver more than 200,000 lunch boxes by bicyle, handcart and train every day across the sprawling city of Mumbai. And they pick up the empty boxes and return them to their homes in the evening without missing a beat. “It’s truly amazing that over the past 20 years I’ve been using their services, they have never ever been late,’’ says Samyak. “I take it for granted that my tiffin carrier will be at my office reception at 1pm.”
Perfectly synchronised and working with assembly line precision, the entire operation takes about nine hours from picking up the lunch box from a client’s home and returning the empty one in the evening.
Barely one box in 1.6 million goes astray. In stark contrast, many airlines expect to lose about three bags for every 3,000 passengers.
Now a synonym for consistency and punctuality, the dabbawallahs plus their amazing system of delivering on time, every time, come rain or shine and without using modern communication devices, have astounded academics, royalty and management gurus alike. Keen to find out how just 5,000 people can deliver more than 2000,000 lunch boxes across the 603km2 city in barely a few hours, the prestigious and respected Harvard Business School conducted a study on their modus operandi. Titled The Dabbawallah System: on time delivery, every time, the study ended up becoming part of its MBA curriculum in 2010.
Co-author of the case study, Stefan Thomke, said: “It’s very different from the organisations that our students study every day. It challenges the assumptions about the drivers of performance. It also inspires. The dabbawallah system works because of its people, not because of technology.”
Courier giant TNT also praised the dabbawallahs’ reliance on human power for transporting such large volumes of a highly perishable product like cooked food in such a short span of time. Gerry Powers, who was managing director of TNT Malaysia, said he was humbled and inspired after listening to a talk by Manish Tripathi, founder and Chairman of the Dabbwallah foundation, who delivered a Ted talk. “Technology is a wonderful thing. But these men made me wonder if we overcomplicate things,” said Gerry.
So who are these people and what is the dabbawallah phenomenon all about? Legend has it that a banker, desperate to eat hot home-cooked food for lunch, gave Mahadeo Havaji
Bachche, the first dabbawallah, the responsibility of picking up and droping off fresh food from the banker’s home to his office every day.
As the concept took root and more people showed interest, the demand for it soared. No sooner than it was conceived, Mahadeo saw a business opportunity and got 100 of his community members together to create the association in 1890, which today continues to fulfil the need of those who are unable to carry a freshly made lunch with them as they leave the house very early in the morning and find eating out expensive and unhealthy.
Today, a typical dabbawallah begins his day by mounting his bicycle at 8am and riding it to the first house on his beat to pick up the lunch box from the client’s home. He then goes door-to-door picking up more lunches and by 10.30am he has around 40 hanging from his bicycle, which he takes to his appointed suburban railway station where several of his fellow dabbawallahs with similar loads have assembled.
All lunchboxes are unloaded from bicycles, arranged on to a wooden rack and put into the luggage compartments of suburban trains bound for different parts of the city. After reaching a central station the racks are ferried out for sorting and delivery as per the areas.
The system works something like this: each locality is identified by a code, neighbourhood by a letter or a string of letters of the English alphabet, destination suburban train station by a number, the building where the food is to be delivered, again by a letter or group of letters, and the floor in which the meal is to be eaten by a numerical symbol.
The code, in Samyak and Babu Rao’s instance is “E-VLP-3-10-MT-12”. E denotes the specific locality from which the lunch box is being picked up, Hanuman Nagar in this case; VLP is the area, Vile Parle; 3 is the destination suburban train station, Churchgate; 10 is the destination area code, Colaba and Cuffe Parade in this case; MT is the name of the building in which the food is to be delivered, which is Maker Tower; and 12 is the floor in which the hungry Mumbaikar, Samyak, works.
Additionally, the handles of the lunch boxes are colour coded to differentiate between people who might work in the same office and are from the same locality.
The dabbawalahs’ work – which costs Rs400 (Dh23) per client per month – has come in for praise from several business leaders including Virgin Airlines’ Richard Branson who accompanied the men on a trip to see for himself how they work. It is said that a picture of Branson with the dabbwallahs hangs in his office in London – to inspire and motivate his staff about the importance of punctuality and work ethic.
The UK’s Prince Charles is another admirer of the lunch box carriers and was said to have been amazed by their punctuality and discipline when he heard about them during his visit to India in 2003. He showed a keen interest in meeting them at an official event. However, the dabbawallahs reportedly told the Prince that they didn’t have the time to spare as they couldn’t be late for their deliveries. Instead they suggested that he meet them on the pavement outside Churchgate station between 11.20am and 11.40am, where many of them gather every day to sort out all the lunchboxes that are delivered in the neighbourhood. And the Prince did. In fact, he invited them to his wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall!
The officials of the Dabbawallah Association are much in demand as speakers at several top management conferences. Arvind Talekar, a senior member of the association, was in Dubai in June last year where he spoke at the two-day GCC Government Organisations Third and Fourth Line Leaders Development Conference. He astounded participants with the achievements of his team and fielded a variety of questions on how they remain punctual even in the most trying circumstances such as
strikes and shutdowns. Ali Al Kamali, managing director of Datamatrix, who organised the conference, was full of praise for the dabbawallahs.
After listening to the talk delivered by Arvind, Kamali said, “Their work is a wonderful story of hard work, grit and passion. As business leaders it teaches us a lot of lessons in time management, hard work etc. It also shows you don’t necessarily have to go to big business schools to learn business; you can learn from anywhere if you want to learn.”
Not once in their history have the dabbawallahs ever gone on strike. Also, there has never been a case filed against them in a court of law. So perfectly run is the organisation that it was given an ISO 2000 certification for quality standards – without even applying for it.
Most of the delivery men have studied only until Grade 8, earn about Rs7,000 a month (Dh415) and have never been given formal training in customer care. Fresh recruits are taken on a six-month probation, during which they are taught the intricacies of the system before being given an area in which to operate.
“In my two decades of association with the dabbawallahs, they have never made a mistake,” says Samyak, 45. “You can even change your name but they will still deliver your tiffin box at your office using their code.”
Samyak knows what he’s talking about. In his Executive Development Programme (EDP) for senior professionals conducted by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, he chose to focus on how Mumbai’s dabbawallahs ensured that each and every member of the group not only knew the coding system well enough but was updated on a regular basis, with the construction boom adding to their challenges.
As Dr Pawan Agarwal, who has done a PhD in logistics and supply chain management of dabbawallahs, says, “The secret of their success lies in their sense of commitment towards their work. So, for instance, when Mumbai is lashed by heavy monsoon for months and life in general is totally disrupted, the dabbawallahs, without being told by their superiors, start the day much early than usual so that they reach their destination on time.
“There have been cases when people have sent money and valuables to their family through lunch boxes as they were scared of carrying it on them while travelling in crowded local trains. There has not been a single instance where a customer’s lunch box has been
‘Their work is a wonderful story of hard work, grit and passion. It teaches us a lot’
pilfered,” he adds. It is this implicit faith in the group that makes the organisation bigger than the recognition that they have earned over the years for their efficiency.
Ashok Mhatarba Dumbre, president of the Dabbawallah Foundation, admits the dabbawallah system is beset with challenges from fast-food chains, takeaways and quick-service restaurants. “The younger generation seems to like fast-food deliveries,” he says. “But we have also seen that once they settle down into a job and look for a more permanent base they start missing simple home-cooked food and turn to a dabbawallah service.”
High customer satisfaction means dabbawallahs get referred new business. “Only satisfied customers recommend other clients, and that helps us a lot,” Ashok says.
Samyak and his wife Barnali have recommended the service to at least 30 people in the past few years
Samyak adds, “I continue to be amazed by their consistent high standards in spite of the exacting schedule they are expected to follow. And considering the money they earn is not motivation enough to continue in the profession, I have not come across a dabbawallah who slacks or needs lessons in self-motivation.”
dabbawallah’s day begins at 8am. Right, lunch boxes ready for delivery
Lunch boxes are sorted at the railway stations
Bicycles, trains and handcarts are used to deliver the lunches
The boxes are picked up and dropped back off, in a day’s work
Ucil iunt mollorem Richard experum Branson si nia se mo joined inti utatior them on re a magni tour to learn more
FOOD SPECIAL The uniform sets the dabbawallahs apart from other workers