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Western Lessons from an Indian Lunchbox Company

CCA LiveE | Monday December 19th, 2011 | 1 Comment

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

By: Tanushri Bhattacharya

In Mumbai the “Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association” – famously known as “Dabbawallas” – delivers lunch boxes (Dabba means lunch boxes). There are 4500 – 5000 dabbawallas (most of whom are semi-illiterate) collecting and delivering lunch boxes to some 175, 000 – 200, 000 customers within hours of orders being placed each day.

This organization has attracted the attention of the likes of Prince Charles and Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin group as well as executives from Fedex and a number of business schools including Harvard.

American Business magazine Forbes has given “Dabbawallas” a Six Sigma performance plus rating which means only 1 error in 6 million deliveries. They hold a world record of Best Time Management.They have been documented by numerous TV channels like BBC, CNN etc. and is accredited with ISO 9000:2000 certificate. How did they become so successful? And what can western businesses learn from their practices?

The organization was established in 1890 by Mahadev Havaji Bachche, when he was appointed by an individual of high rank to carry their lunch box to their office in Mumbai. Mahadev saw a huge opportunity in this business and established his own organisation with about 100 men. After 120 years this organization is still running efficiently.

Why is there a requirement to have lunch box carriers in the first place? There are a number of reasons.

In India people like hot home cooked food – mainly because of absence of economical and hygienic foods otherwise. The concept of frozen or canned food is not prevalent in India. Indian meals include rice and / or Indian bread (roti) with lentil soup and curry – carrying such lunch requires containers like lunch boxes. Finally, in Mumbai, some 6.4 million people travel in local trains so overcrowded that carrying an office bag itself is a problem. Hence, reasons enough for a need of lunch box carriers.

Below are highlights which make this organization so unique which can be iterated for other contexts:

 Simplifying the Process .

Each lunch box has been designed with a simple and uniquely color code providing its exact destination and origin so that illiteracy doesn’t hinder the movement. These codes are developed by semiliterate persons – no modern techniques whatsoever.

Amazing people coordination and supply chain management
5000  dabbawallahs collect 200,000 boxes during 7:00 to 9:00 AM from homes at different localities of Mumbai, travel fast on foot, bicycles and/or local trains crisscrossing in all direction to deliver them to correct destinations by 12:30 PM sharp. A single box changes 3 to 4 hands during its one way journey of 46-50 miles every day. After lunch the whole process moves in reverse.

Work smarter and localize
They have used the existing network of local trains and Mumbai´s linear geography to their advantage.

Faciliate Quick Decision-making
They have been divided into groups of 25-30 on locality basis, where they do take care of their own decisions, administration and crisis control. This has helped them to make quick decisions.

Ensure happy employees
Not a single day strike or absence for any reason has been ever recorded.

Thus with no outside support, no technology but just the amazing abilities of some semi-illiterate village people, this organization is surviving on their elegant foundation of beautifully designed principles and have never diluted themselves from their main motive – to deliver dabbas (lunch boxes).


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  • Yasir

    wah, excellent. this has made my day:)