What Harvard is learning from the Mumbai dabbawalas

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Most of their workers are illiterate and the last major upgrade the 125 year-old organisation made to its delivery chain was the bicycle. Yet the Mumbai dabbawalas deliver and return 130,000 dabbas, or tiffins, every day. According to Forbes magazine, they have a Six Sigma rating of 99.999999, which means less than one out of every six million deliveries goes amiss.

Since the publication of the article in Forbes in 1998, the dabbawalas have been the darlings of the international media scene. They have been visited by Prince Charles and Richard Branson, who worked as a dabbawala for a day. They have also been studied by management schools around the world, all keen to learn just how they do it.

A cooperative of 5,000 members, the dabbawalas of Mumbai collect the filled dabbas from homes all across Mumbai and deliver them to the requisite offices by lunchtime, which is 12.30pm, traversing the length of Mumbai via the train system. At 2pm they retrieve the now-empty dabbas and return them to their originating households, completing an estimated 260,000 transactions in a city of 10.5 million people, accurately and on time. “It all started because in 1885, a banker in Mumbai really loved his wife,” says founder and chairman of the Dabbawala Foundation, Manish Tripathi, in an interview in October. “This banker had to work far from home and so could not return home to eat the lunch prepared by his wife. He decided instead to hire a man to pick up the packed lunch from his home and have it delivered to his office. Others started imitating him. Then one day, Mahadev Haji Bache, a farmer from Pune, saw an opportunity and created a delivery business — that is how the dabbawalas started.”

College-educated Manish had heard of the dabbawalas, following the excitement of Prince Charles’s visit in 2003. He saw that the semi-literate organisation did not understand how to use the opportunities that were coming their way.

“I saw I could make a big difference to the organisation. I first joined as a dabbawala, but now because I can make more money for the organisation, I spend most of my time travelling and speaking,” said Manish, who was in Kuala Lumpur three months ago to speak on “Inspiring Innovators”, a talk organised by the local office of international express delivery company TNT Express Worldwide (M) Sdn Bhd and ADOI magazine.

The lecture circuit has also taken Manish to Fortune 500 companies around the globe, as well as to Wharton and Stanford.

He is still bemused by the interest shown by the “MBAs”, as he calls them.

“Most of our members cannot read! Yet we’re constantly studied by the MBAs. Truth is, our members are suitably educated for their profession. We couldn’t employ MBAs; they’d ask too many questions,” he laughs.

Academic interest in the dabbawalas continues unabated. Earlier last year, Harvard Business School introduced its case study titled “The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time” as part of its MBA curriculum.

“It is very different from the organisations that our students study every day. It challenges their assumptions about the drivers of performance. It also inspires. The Dabbawala system works because of its people, not because of technology or sophisticated management,” says Stefan Thomke, co-author of the case study and William Barclay Harding Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, in an email interview in December.

Thomke’s interest in the Dabbawalas started two years ago while he was in Mumbai working on another case study.

“I found a brief mention of the Dabbawala organisation while reading in my hotel room. I got interested because of the intellectual puzzle: ‘How can an organisation with no technology, no sophisticated logistics management system, and people with little education achieve such high-delivery performance — in a fast-moving city that can be very chaotic?’ ” he says.

Working with Mona Srivastava, a research associate at the HBS India Research Centre, Thomke compiled the case study over a period of six months, travelling between Boston and Mumbai.

Initially, Thomke assumed that the secret was in the operating system, in the way the Dabbawalas managed material and information flows.

“But it turns out that much of their success can be attributed to their human resource system — the way they hire, develop, manage and reward people. It’s an organisation built around people, not around technology,” says Thomke. “I wish that I could take all of our MBA students to Mumbai so they can see the system. Reading and discussing the case study in our classroom is the next best thing. Last time we taught the case, we had a live video conference with DWs (Boston-Mumbai) and students were able to ask questions.”

Gerry Powers, managing director for TNT Malaysia, confessed that he was both humbled and inspired by Manish’s talk at the TNT office in Menara PKNS.

“Technology is a wonderful thing but,  sometimes, I do wonder if we overcomplicate things,” says Powers.

TNT Worldwide itself was started by one man — Ken Thomas and his truck. Today, the global company employs over 75,000 people operating 26,000 road vehicles and 47 jet freighter aircraft across 200 countries.

“We have to remember that we are basically a people business and should not let bureaucracy make us difficult to deal with in any way. If you take care of your people, they will drive the service, drive growth and benefit the customers. So if my employees are not happy, I am nothing,” says Powers.

‘Work as worship’According to Manish, the dabbawala’s legendary dedication, which pushes them to dash through the streets of Mumbai laden with tiffin carriers in all manner of weather, stems from devotion. 

“Our dabbawalas view their work as worship. They are grateful to have work, and to serve others by delivering food is to serve God,” he says.

Harvard’s case study outlines one shining example of the commitment shown by the dabbawalas. In July 2005, unusually heavy monsoon rains, combined with record high tides, flooded Mumbai. Like their customers, many of the dabbawalas were stranded in trains, at railway stations and sidewalks for two days. Raghunath Medge, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (one of the Mumbai Dabbawalas’ two governing committees), was trapped on a train with 10 other dabbawalas returning with empty dabbas. He recalled thinking, “We can’t leave without the dabbas and we can’t avoid the ditches and potholes while wading through the water.” Nevertheless, on the second day, even before the city recovered, the dabbawalas waded through waist-high water and delivered the dabbas back home.

“Everyone in Mumbai recognises the white Gandhi cap worn by our dabbawalas and they respect us for the work we do. They also know not to stand in our way!” says Manish, doffing his own. “In the mornings, when the dabbawalas collect the dabbas (around 9am), if the housewife is late with the dabba for more than a week, we will stop serving them. We are not going to let thousands suffer, waiting for their lunches, because one person was late. As a result, it’s said that the housewives of Mumbai are more afraid of the dabbawalas than they are of their husbands!”

The dabawallas’ dedication to their duty was observed firsthand by Prince Charles when he asked to meet with them in 2003. In response to his invitation for the dabbawalas to meet with him at his hotel, the dabbawalas replied: “Dear Prince Charles, we are unable to meet with you at your hotel as we will be delivering tiffins. However, if you will come to the train station at 10am, we will be sorting the tiffins and will be able to meet you then,” recites Manish.

The prince did indeed meet the dabbawalas at the Western Railway Headquarters opposite Churchgate station in south Mumbai, where he received a white Gandhi cap.

The universal respect they have gained enables the dabbawalas to take pride in their work despite their low income which averages INR7,000 (RM487) a month. “We don’t pay any salaries. Every single dabbawala is a shareholder and gets an equal share of the income,” says Manish.

The Harvard case study notes that when the dabbawala organisation first started, one dabbawala would be in charge of an area and would hire 15 to 20 delivery boys. But in 1983, the dabbawalas moved to an owner-partner system based on a profit-sharing model. Each area is now run by groups of about 25 members who manage their own finances, customers and operational activities.

“Each dabbawala is capable of collecting up to 20 dabbas a day — but this is the maximum. Usually in a group, each dabbawala will collect less so that, if a dabbawala is sick, the others can compensate. New dabbawalas are hired only to replace a member or when there are too many new customers in an area,” explains Manish.

Turnover for the dabbawalas is nearly non-existent. Members, only four of whom are women, range in age from 18 to 65, with senior members moving on to supervisory roles.

“If a dabbawala wants to leave, he has to find someone else to take his place,” says Manish. New members are recruited only from the 30 or so villages around Pune; many are relatives or friends.
“If someone wants to become a dabbawala, he will be on probation for six months on a salary of INR3,000. After which, if he wants to be a member and the others accept him, he will have to invest 10 times the expected monthly income in the group’s business (for example, if the group’s members earn INR7,000 a month each, the new dabbawala would have to pay INR70,000),” says Manish.

The dabbawalas’ homogeneity is one of their strengths, says Manish. “We are all one family, from the Vakari sect. We eat lunch together and we pray together.” Resistant to technologyUntil now, the dabbawalas have proven resistant to technology. While the English website, www.mydabbawala.com/index2.htm, that Manish set up has generated inquiries and requests for lectures, new customers still can’t ask to subscribe to the service.

“If you want a dabbawala to come to your house, you ask a friend to tell their dabbawala, or you find a member and tell him. He will then quote a price based on where you live — it’s more expensive if you live far from a train station,” says Manish.  On average, each customer pays around INR300 (RM20.60) a month for the service.

So far, the dabbawala word-of-mouth system is good enough for them, he says. “We don’t have to spend on advertising, we have Prince Charles as our ‘brand ambassador’!” he laughs, adding that the prince’s visit catapulted the organisation to international fame. “Before him, it was just the MBAs.”

If there is one weakness to the dabbawala system, it is its inability to adapt and change in a city that is evolving rapidly. The case study by Harvard noted that over the past 40 years, the number of vehicles in Mumbai had grown from 61,000 vehicles in 1950 to over 1.02 million in 2008. The worsening traffic has made travelling by bicycle and transporting goods by handcart increasingly difficult and dangerous. The increase in traffic also resulted in more road repairs, forcing the dabbawalas to detour — and running or pedalling faster to cope.

The tight schedule the dabbawalas operate on also allows for little variation. When Manish attempted to glean additional revenue by distributing fliers and samples on behalf of corporations, the extra time needed to distribute the samples “threw their system out of gear”, observes the case study. The organisation is also unable to expand out of Mumbai as no other city in India has as comprehensive a railway system.

“The Mumbai dabbawalas will always be in Mumbai,” says Manish.

For now, Manish is trying to connect the dabbawalas with cell phones, thus enabling customers to contact their dabbawala. He’s confident that through sponsorship, the cellphone costs can be managed. But he is encountering resistance.

“My biggest wish is to do more for the organisation, but the members are reluctant to cooperate. For example, a company wanted to donate a large sum to our organisation, but in the end we never received it because our members insisted on the donation being made in cash. They simply cannot understand electronic transactions,” says Manish with a sigh. “But in some ways they are right. It’s the dabbawala himself and his commitment that matters, not the technology or qualifications.”
This article appeared in [email protected], the monthly management pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 839, Jan 3-9, 2011