Wednesday, November 9, 2011


In Mumbai, about 5,000 dabbawallas deliver 200,000 lunches a day to city workers.  The system started in the 19th century and perseveres today, although apparently the number of lunches has started to decline.

A dabbawalla picks up freshly made hot lunches from homes in the suburbs in mid-morning.  Our guide pointed out that you better have the lunch ready when they arrive - even if it's a bit before their scheduled time - because if it's not ready they go without it!  One dabbawalla collects many lunches and takes them on special dabbawalla trays, loaded onto bicycles, pushcarts or carried on their head, and takes them to the train, where they are placed in a special car on the train.  When they arrive at the Churchgate station in central Mumbai, they are picked up by more dabbawallas and sorted for delivery to their final destination at 12:30.  Empty tiffin boxes are returned home in the afternoon.  The tiffin boxes pass through several hands and travel on bicycles, handcarts, trains or on heads to reach their destinations and undergo several sorting processes along the way.

The amazing thing is that this is a totally manual process, and is based on a proprietary (some say secret) coding scheme that is used by the dabbawallas, many of whom are illiterate.  You can see the coding painted on the traditional tin tiffin box below; magic markers are used on the cloth bags and thermoses which are more the modern fashion.  I got a picture of a partially sorted tray of tiffins.

Does the central sorting station make you think of FedEx's hub in Memphis?  It certainly did for me.

And it's not quite fair to say the entire process is manual.  Dabbawallas are now accepting orders through SMS.  It is also SMS which is also killing the old habit of slipping messages into the tiffin box - why do that when you can fire off a text message?

Being a dabbawalla is a traditional job mainly held by people from the Pune area of India. The organization has very little management superstructure and is held in a charitable trust.  Dabbawallas have to make an investment of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta pajamas, and the trademark white Gandhi cap.  All the profits are distributed at the end of every month and come to about $40-$80.  It costs less than $4 for the customer to have this amazing delivery service for a month!

What is astonishing about this system is its incredible accuracy and timeliness.  Forbes magazine awarded the system Six Sigma certification in 2001, based on its 99.999999% accuracy rate which implies less than 1 error in 16 million.

Having read about this system, I was fascinated to see it, and expected to observe high intensity and even frenzy at the sorting stations.  However, we watched the tiffin boxes being sorted on the sidewalk outside Churchgate Station and the scene was totally calm, even leisurely, although very organized.  We'd been told the dabbawallas weren't fond of people getting in their way and taking lots of photos (understandable), so I have limited good pictures of the whole exercise.  Here's a picture of some of the trays ready to go; it's a heavy load for one person to carry or push.  Some bikers head off with tiffins hanging from every part of their body and the bike!

For those who think that a successful organization absolutely requires rigid top-down management, the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust of Mumbai is a great counterexample.

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