In July 2005, the Indian financial capital, Mumbai was battered by heavy monsoon rains, virtually flooding the city. These floods wreaked widespread havoc, bringing the organised chaotic city to a standstill. But there was one thing which was still moving: the Dabbawalas. Distinguished by the Gandhi caps they wear, the Dabbawalas are people who deliver meals prepared in customer’s homes to their offices and return the empty dabbas (metal lunch boxes) back the same day.
In 2005, even before Mumbai was on its knees again, the dabbawalas were back on their job, cycling through waist-high waters. Soon, these dabbawalas became Mumbai’s symbol of gritty resilience.
The scale, accuracy and precision of these dabbawalas service is legendary: Over 5,000 dabbawalas deliver and return over 130,000 lunch boxes throughout the megapolis of Mumbai. This means conducting 260,000 transactions in six hours, each day, six days a week (except Sunday), and 52 weeks a year. Despite the enormity of the scale, these dabbawalas have reached six sigma accuracy – that is just 3.4 defects in a million opportunities. The dabbawalas have attracted worldwide attention and visits by Prince Charles, Richard Branson, and employees of Federal Express (ironically which is yet to reach the Six-sigma standard). The main question to ask here is : How can a poorly educated, decentralised workforce perform so brilliantly in a challenging environment? Let’s see…
The dabbwala service was first established in 1890, that is over 125 years back. The Dabbawala service began in the heyday of the Raj, originally to deliver packed lunches to the British in their workplaces. The British officials were famously obsessed with punctuality and kept these dabbawalas on their toes. Unexpectedly, the service continued even after India’s Independence in 1947. This service gained immense popularity in India’s corporate headquarters, Mumbai, which is infamously known for its crowded railways. The Mumbai suburban railway is so crowded, that it is virtually impossible to carry anything in your hand!
The railway is the most popular mode of transport for office-commuters in Mumbai, who find it impossible to carry their tiffin boxes with them everyday. Here the dabbawalas swing into action, picking up home-cooked meals from the customer’s homes and delivering them to the customer’s office and back again.
The dabbawalas admit that perhaps the major reason for their precision and accuracy is the gruelling schedule and the chaotic environment in which they work. Workers have 40 seconds to load the crates of dabbas onto a train at major stations and just 20 seconds at interim stops. The tight schedule helps synchronize everyone and imposes discipline. This cycle provides clear feedback when the performance of a worker slips. If a worker is late dropping off his dabbas at a station, his delinquency is immediately obvious to everyone, and alternative arrangements then have to be made for transporting his dabbas on another train. Problems can’t be swept under the rug and must be dealt with promptly.
Another reason for their success, which is perhaps the biggest reason, is the fact that the dabbawalas share emotional bonds and a shared identity. The dabbawalas usually remain in their groups for their entire working lives (There is no retirement age as such). This is why members of the team care deeply for one another. While on the job, the dabbawalas wear the same style of clothes and white Gandhi caps, making them easy to identify. They are largely uneducated: Only 15% have attended junior high school. This is a classic example of unity in uniformity (as opposed to unity in diversity)! These emotional and almost familial bonds reduce the error rate enormously. The dabbawalas’ homogeneity also plays a part. In an era when many companies strive for diversity in their workforce, its downside—less alignment—often is ignored. There are advantages to uniformity: It creates a strong identity and sets boundaries that are necessary in a highly variable environment. It is all about balance.
The last, but not the least important reason for the dabbawalas success is that they have a shared, simple vision. That is, “Delivering food on time, every time”. This is a big lesson to all the big MNCs that staying true and resolute to one’s core values is the first step to success. Each dabbawala believes that serving food is like serving God. That explains their extreme dedication to their jobs during the floods of July 2005.
At the same time, however, the dabbawalas are facing many challenges as their market undergoes a rapid transition. But with judicious adjustments, and adoption of modern practises they may continue to achieve amazing results. And that’s a lesson managers of all enterprises should take to heart.
It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are. Never compromise your values. – Roy Disney
Note:- All the opinions stated in the above article are the author’s own.
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