Dabawallas keep supply chains simple

On Monday near Church Street, Mumbai I met one of my supply chain heroes. He is a member of a team that has been invited to Prince Charles wedding; lauded by Bill Clinton; followed by Sir Richard Branson and accorded the Six Sigma Award for their superlative delivery performance. One of the protagonists in Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic verses, Gibreel Farishta, was born to a Dabbawallah and, TL would add another tribute describing them as a master class in a simply modal approach. So, there I was talking to Shaurya who had just finished delivering tiffin boxes to teachers in an International School. He was keen to try his English – he is doing a course at the moment “because many address can’t read without it.” We turned the corner and there they were maybe fifty Dabawallas interchanging tiffin boxes with their symbols and colour codes designed to be read by men who had little schooling.

Five fingers of one hand pack the supply chain punch

A Dabawalla is a person who delivers fresh home-made food in tiffin boxes to office workers all over Mumbai at lunchtime. “Daba” means box – usually a cylindrical aluminium container containing a typical meal of curry, vegetables, and a type of bread called roti – and walla is a generic term for someone who works in that trade. There are daba makers in the home and then, usually on a bike, the daba collectors.

After collection, the 5,000 Dabawallas will take them to a designated sorting place before being moved about the city using the rail network and then, delivered to the desk by individual dabawallas. More than 175,000 – 200,000 tiffin boxes are delivered and, two hours later, collected. This is where the six sigma accolade comes in – a recent survey logged one mistake in 6,000 deliveries. The New York Times reported in 2007 that the 125 year old dabbawala industry continues to grow at a rate of 5-10% per year.

The story starts in 1890, when Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, started a lunch delivery service with about 100 men. Later a charitable trust was registered in 1956 under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. The commercial arm of this trust was registered in 1968 as Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association. From the start, the dabbawalla system used the railways and, a visit to any day will see a master class in a transhipment hub as tiffin boxes move in and out more smoothly than any container port from Colombo to Jebel Ali. And as the Commonwealth Games close, it resembles a baton relay race at its best. The dabawallas use 68 railway stations as hubs with trains arriving at two minute intervals.

It is estimated that the dabbawala industry grows by 5-10% each year. Each dabbawala, regardless of role, gets paid about two to four thousand rupees per month (around £25–50 or US$40–80. Out of 5000 Dabbawalas , about 85% are illiterate and the remaining 15% are educated up to 8th grade. This is a low-tech service with the bare-footed dabbawallahs at the centre of the action working in teams led by a mukadam. As any of them will tell you: Hatachi pachuch bote hajaro kame kartat; karan tyanchyat aeekya aste – the five fingers of a palm can do a thousand things because they have unity.

Even the Dabawallas move on. Recent tie ups with mobile phone operator Airtel and, Corporation Bank aim to leverage the reach of the Dabawallas to sign up more customers to their own services and, as Mumbai expands there are significant opportunities in Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai). Now, the service allows booking for delivery through SMS. A web site, mydabbawala.com, has also been added to allow for on-line booking, in order to keep up with the times. An on-line poll on the web site ensures that customer feedback is given pride of place. Many of them, like the one I met on Churchgate, had been struggling with English addresses so, English courses have started alongside computer training for the team leaders so that they can improve the business.

In these days of highly sophisticated supply chain solutions it is a salutary lesson to observe the dabbawallas at work. Just like the couriers that ferry diamonds from Gujurat to Mumbai or the Festival crowds at temples that the Future Group study to understand queue dynamics simply modal has its place. No supply chain solution should ignore local context and, what that tells us is that there is no one best way to deliver a service and logistics does not have to be solely about high-tech solutions. After all, fundamentally, it is a people business from end-to-end.

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3 Responses to Dabawallas keep supply chains simple

  1. M.S.P Rani says:

    Dear sir,

    Dabbawalas are truly Indian heroes in the real sense of the word and we have learnt about them in our MBA program in not just supply chain management course but also in several other contexts like Organisational behaviour, small business entreprenuership, marketing management etc. Hats off to the heroes! As students we get an opportunity to understand the live supply chains in our country studying them.

    Reading your article I was suddenly reminded of another set of heroes and would like to share with you another interesting supply chain in our country. It is rare to have heard of them because they are highly localised. They are a group of women called ‘Baasanwali’. Baasan here means utensils made of steel mainly. In India, the households use a lot of steel utensils for cooking, storing water, and many other uses. This has been tapped as an opportunity by this group of women. They are not an association like the dabbawalas, but they are independent in nature and work in families. You can find many such families atleast in the place where I came from. They are very interesting. They procure some of the latest models of steel cooking utensils from a local steel factory. They place them in a big basket and cover the basket with thin ropes or sometimes nothing. These women fold a small towel in the shape of a circle and place the basket on their heads. They carry the basket and walk around the households shouting what baasan they have in store. It is amazing how they balance these heavy loads on their head and walk through the streets.

    It is fascinating to know how they carry out the business. They go to each household who calls them and attend to their needs individually. The housewives give them the old and worn out clothes of the family members. The baasanwali takes the clothes and gives a utensil that she feels is of the same value as of all the clothes she collected. The housewives bargain on more utensils for the clothes and they cleverly persuade for more clothes in return. I will be able to explain to you in detail personally how this goes. They offer the best models and the housewives get them in exchange for old useless clothes. They later sell the clothes or use them. My family has been doing it for generations. And the same basaanwali’s family still visits my place till date since generations. It is a very traditional practice, however in recent times I observed a lot of change. You will be surprised to know they perform even reverse logistics. The housewives return the utensils to her if the quality is not good or there are holes in it or other problems. She either gets them repaired taking it back to the factory or she replaces it with a similar new utensil in a week’s time. She has saved my mother a lot of time in going to the steel utensil shops and buying them and to many other housewives. They visit once or twice in a month. Though all these utensils are available in retail outlets like big bazaar etc., we prefer buying from the baasanwali in exchange for old clothes and for the straight home delivery with an excellent option of exchange/ reverse logistics.

    I find these women really fascinating. Their commitment won my heart as they walk in the hot sun bare foot taking heavy loads of steel utensils all neatly arranged in a basket. They just don’t sell away and go like over the counter sale. They sit and talk to the housewives, enquire about what kind of utensils they want, they ask about the children in the house , they discuss their problems and wants …..and in plain words they do the best CRM i’ve ever seen or heard of. They even ask when next to come and sometimes note down the days when they can visit that particular household. The whole family is involved in the trade. The men in the family help them get the utensils from the factory, the daughters and daughter in laws, if any, accompany these women and carry the old clothes in a similar fashion on head.

    If possible I would take their photographs and send them to you sir when possible. Personally, I like them a lot and I even spend time talking to them when they come home. I will be very pleased if you could study about them sometime if possible and can develop a model out of it or anything that would help these families. They may be very few in number but have touched several lives and made life easier for us. As truly quoted by you in the class, they are not the unorganised lot and it is really a lesson how organised these people are and the many set principles they work on in carrying out their trade.

    M.S.P Rani
    Gitam School of International Business

  2. Dabbawala’s… an organization which is performing with a sig sigma status is using the some principles of the supply chain that are Better, Faster and Cheaper, and they concentrated on the triple bottom line… and this mode of shipments cannot be copied to other cities, because the dabbawalas have understood what Mumbai is, and what the customer requirements are. Is this model can be copied??? i don’t think so.!!!!

  3. Ginto George says:

    Government should give them some credits in the forms of concessions and provide them some facilities which can help them..

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