Six Sigma Of Mumbai Dabbawallas

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The dabbawala are an incredible organization of over 5000 people in Mumbai. The word “Dabba” loosely means “lunch box”; “walla” means carrier or deliver man. But put them together and you get “Lunch box carrier”. In this case it refers to a stackable tin box used for hot meals called the tiffin.

The dabbawala was set up in 1890 to carry lunches from home to office for British administrators who would not carry their own lunches in public. Today it serves a similar function form the commuters of Mumbai – home to 17 million people.

Every day, for a very modest fee, the dabbawalas collect freshly cooked meals from their customers’ homes all over Mumbai. Travelling by train, bus and bicycle, they then sort and deliver each of them to offices and workplaces throughout the city by lunchtime – and even return the used tiffins back to the customer’s home for reuse.

This is not in any way a small operation. The dabbawala deliver an astonishing 200,000 meals across the city, every daywith incredible efficiency, and almost perfect accuracy in order fulfilment.

Western companies like Amazon and FedEx strive to achieve that kind of accuracy through advanced technology. Not so in the case of the dabbawala.

Despite its incredible efficiency, theirs is a very low-tech system… built around train schedules, bicycles, and delivery men. The only modern technology involved in the process are a website, and an ordering system enabling people to text in their last-minute orders.

To satisfy their customers, they use a complex system of collection teams, sorting points and delivery zones, and a completely manual system for routing the right meal to the right destination. This labelling system must rely purely on numbers and colors, painted on the tiffin – because most of the dabbawalas are illiterate and cannot read.

Despite challenges like this, the organization has been recognized and celebrated for their amazing order accuracy estimated at roughly 1 error in every 16 million transactions. (Yes, you read that right.). They have been granted ISO9000 status and they have been recognized by Forbes as being a Six Sigma organization.

Which is why Harvard Business School made the dabbawala the subject of a case study in 2010, why business leaders from around the world have visited them, and why their leader was invited to address a TEDx conference in 2011.

By now, I’m sure most of you would have heard of the dabbawalas of Mumbai. They refer to a large group of delivery men based in the city of Mumbai (India), who deliver home-cooked meals packed in tiffin carriers to hundreds of thousands of office workers in the city daily.

For those who have not heard of the dabbawalas, the next question that comes to mind would be: What is so special about a group of men who deliver tiffin carriers in Mumbai? According to Dr. Pawan Agrawal, CEO of the Mumbai Dabbawalas, the case in point here is that these people are no mere deliverymen, but a group of unsung heroes whose work ethics and operational model have been adopted as a benchmark for the rest of the world to follow, especially those who are involved in supply chain management.

The humble set-up of the Mumbai dabbawalas’ network, which was established in the late 19th century, belies its mind-boggling achievements in providing reliable service to their customers and keeping a near-perfect delivery record. Consider these amazing statistics, which help to quantify their track record.


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