Mumbai Dabbawalas Vs Top Gear
200,000+ hungry customers to be fed – who will you bet on?
The clock struck 12.00 pm. I ran to the office receptionist to collect my Dabba (Hindi word for Lunchbox). The aroma of my mom’s delicious paneer tikka filled the office cafeteria. I could not thank the Dabbawala (lunchbox delivery man) enough. What could be a better way to treat yourself in office than to have home-made fresh paneer tikka on a rainy Mumbai afternoon!I wondered how the Dabbawala delivers a home-made lunchbox to me everyday on time? How does this service cost less than $10 a month for each customer? I was determined to find out how the foolproof pickup and delivery system works for thousands of customers.
And what I found blew my mind!
Dabbawalas pickup and deliver meals prepared in customers’ homes to their offices and then return the empty dabbas (metal lunchboxes) the same day. I have illustrated the journey of my Dabba through this system below:
The Dabba is prepared by my Mom at home and picked up by a Dabbawala at a specific time every day. He then carries my Dabba to the nearest subway station (along with about 30-40 other lunchboxes from my locality) on his bicycle.At the subway station he meets his colleagues who cover other localities in the area. Here, they sort lunchboxes according to destination station, office address and floor on which I sit.On average a destination is about 25 miles away! The Dabbawala has to then catch the right train to be on time. My Dabba travels in a subway train to reach the destination station where it is picked up by another Dabbawala who finally delivers it to my office.
On the surface, the Dabbawala system seems to be a straightforward service… until I understand that I am only one of 200,000+ customers that are served by them every day.
Every day 4500 to 5000 Dabbawalas pick up lunchboxes from 200,000+ home locations, and use 100+ subway stations and 10,000+ bicycle rides to deliver Dabbas at 200,000+ office locations before 12 noon and back home the same day!
And if you are not impressed yet, here is an amazing fact – the Dabbawala operation qualifies to be a six sigma operation with less than one mistake in 8 million lunchboxes or 16 million deliveries, since the lunchboxes are returned home each day! 
To top it all, what makes this system even more complex is the fact that they operate in Mumbai – one of the most populous cities in the world.
So how do they do this? Understanding the Dabbawala’s unique operating model sheds some light on how they achieve this miraculous feat every day.
- Simplifying the complex system – sorting and coding: Literacy among Dabbawalas is low to zero. This calls for implementing efficient work flows that are simple to understand and follow. The Dabba coding system uses colorful bands and uses 5 simple characters (as in the picture below) to designate the address of destination and source location. This code eliminates the need to insert a detailed address – thus speeding up the sorting process and reducing errors. 
- Focus on process control, standardization and continuous improvement: The failure in adherence of any process is very visible to everyone in the supply chain. Just like the ‘Andon Cord’ system at Toyota, high visibility leads to higher accountability and continuous participative problem solving. Every step of the process is standardized to minimize variation – from the size of the lunchboxes to train schedules, color codes and pickup time for every lunchbox.
- Flat organizational structure: Dabbawalas is 125 year old organization. It has a flat organizational structure with only 3 levels – the executive management team, the regional supervisors, and the delivery team. The organization is democratic in nature. Each Dabbawala (whether a novice or someone with 20 years of experience) has equal stake, status, pay and say in the operations. To buy an equal stake, a new Dabbawala invests in 2 bicycles, one wooden crate to carry Dabbas and one Gandhi cap!
- Community values and strong sense of belonging: All things aside, the biggest thing that differentiates the Dabbawalas is their strong sense of belonging to the community and their unparalleled dedication to give back to Mumbai city. Each Dabbawala earns as little as $100 every month. But they toil hard day after day – fighting Mumbai rains, bad roads, hot summers and notorious traffic!
Dabbawalas embody the spirit of resilience that Mumbai city is known for. Their dedication is exemplified by the fact that they decided to deliver lunchboxes on the very next day of the horrendous 26 Nov 2008 terrorist attack – spreading hope and exhibiting resilience!
Above all, Dabbawalas don’t take themselves too seriously! They spread love with every lunchbox –and are forever smiling!
But how good can the Dabbawalas’ operations really be?
With world-class cars and reckless drivers, the Top Gear team decided to challenge Mumbai’s low-tech Dabbawala’s on bicycles. Watch the video below to find out who wins!
Want to explore more?
Watch Dabbawala – Giving Back to community Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7xsUxk36CQ
Photostory on Dabbawala’s: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-26128597
Student comments on Mumbai Dabbawalas Vs Top Gear
Love this post, great prose and get drawings! What stands out to me here (aside from the absolutely killer illustrations) is the importance of the flat organization structure of this organization. Because all of the Dabbawalas are considered equal once they are bought into the organization, they are then empowered to correct any one issue should it go wrong. There is no escalation of issues and no bottleneck because of this. This aspect reminds me of the move to a single cell structure in the Dore, Dore case as well as the airline customer service changes made by Jan Carlzon (LEAD case). Once the entire operation was controlled by the workers, and workers were empowered to do what was most needed at any point, the efficiency was greatly increased.
Thanks Nina! Glad you liked the post (and the weird stick figures!).I completely agree with your observation. Sometimes we restrict our thinking to processes and systems while thinking about operations, and Dabbawala’s model reminds us that organizational design plays a big part in firm’s operating and business model. As we saw in several cases (such as Toyota, Benihana, MOD pizza – Lead etc) implementation of operational strategies crucially depends on alignment of motivations and incentives – tying operations closely with the organizational design.
Hey Saumya, first of all I would like to preface by saying I LOVE THIS POST! I vividly remember watching this episode about 2-3 years ago (wow time sure does fly…) and thinking that it was impossible for this system to beat the presenters in the race. But it was amazing to me that what is seemingly a chaotic system is actually an organized and well honed operation that’s specifically tailored to the city and country.
In my opinion the point you touched on with regards to the community values is one of the most crucial ones. Every Dabbawala shows pride and devotion in what they do, it is not the seemingly simple act of delivering a meal but it is about bringing joy and connecting families.
I also think it is easy for us – or Top Gear in this case – to apply some of our preconceived notions of what makes a process efficient. But the extent to which the presenters failed at the task shows us how important it is for an operation to understand the context in which it is operating. e.g. Using super-cars is of no help when the traffic won’t let you move, and devising an elaborate coding language doesn’t work when the Dabbawalas can’t read and the streets don’t have numbers/names.
PS. The illustrations are pretty spot on!
Thanks Sacha! Your observation is bang on – context is the king. I missed mentioning this point explicitly in my post, but as you pointed out – business and operating model are secondary to market needs and context – who are your customers? what is the skill set of your employees? What are the customer needs? what are the external challenges (traffic!)? what cultural context are you working in?
Fascinating post, Saumya! I never imagined such a low tech system could be so efficient. It really highlights the opportunity for process excellence and innovation in any system. As I was reading through, I wonder if and how the Dabbawalas are able to address errors when they do come up. Do they recognize a total loss on that lunch, or can the system auto correct? Also, this seems like a pretty low barrier to entry business. What’s stopping another group from entering and disrupting their business?
I love the pictures too! The stick figures are not weird; they’re brilliant! 🙂
Firstly, on error management – as described in the post errors in the Dabbawalas system are very visible – for example dabbawala missing a train or lunchbox not reaching on time. This encourages them to analyze each time an error happens, and build a process to make sure it is not repeated. Hence, the secret behind their magic is the good old concept of ‘incremental continuous improvement.’ In additional, to ensure that workers still have a tiny margin of error for certain tasks – they maintain buffer capacity in their schedules. You can read more on https://hbr.org/2012/11/mumbais-models-of-service-excellence
Secondly, on entry barriers – believe it or not, the barrier to entry is their operating model. It has taken them 125 years to built this super efficient system. Their experiential learnings is what keep them ahead of the curve. Also, as you see their price point is very low, making the margins low – disincentivizing new players who might need higher prices to recoup their investment. Having said that, you are right – their biggest threat would be companies (such as uber) that can leverage technology to build a better model. Dabbawalas have been actively adopting mobile to further improve their processes.
Thanks for your comment on the stick figures 🙂
What an awesome post! We actually almost used a case on this company. They are totally cool. Fascinating operating model and nice analysis explaining it. Cool.
Thanks Prof. Marco. I am a big fan of this organization – it is the king of process improvements! They are totally awesome.
I saw the Top Gear episode! It was very funny. I really like your post Saumya.
Just wondering what are they trying to do with the mobile landscape?
Awesome post Saumya! It is the first case we’ve looked at whereby the process flow moves in one direction and then run in reverse just a few hours later. I wonder what kinds of new challenges the ambi-directional nature of the flow presents.
I also thought that the average journey was a bit on the long side- do you think that the average 25 mile journey (50 miles round trip!) of a Dabbawala across one of the world’s most congested cities, is reflective of an optimized distribution system? It seems like an impossibly far distance to travel for such a low margin offering.
It also seems as though the system is optimized around handling variability in delivery location, how about variability in menu offerings? How large is the menu and when do customers place orders? Can people order whatever they want so long as there is another Dabba-maker within the city willing to supply such a Dabba? We saw in the beer-making simulation how partial blindness on consumer demand can put stress on the distribution system. What if tomorrow there were half as many orders as today of fresh paneer tikka, who is responsible for the inventory risk and how do they plan around it?
Just want to say that I loved the effort and enthusiasm you brought to this piece. Great job! I really enjoyed watching the process, and seeing this output 🙂
This is awesome Saumya! Had heard about Dabbawala’s back home and also saw them in a couple of movies 🙂 Thank you for capturing the process so creatively.