(By Ms. Disha R Khandare)

Mumbai – city of dreams, city of gold, a city that never sleeps and so many other names to this one city. Mumbai is a city where men and women dare to dream. It is and always has been a place which never ceases to amaze us. As rightly said by the legendary director and movie producer Yash Chopra, “Once you start living in Mumbai, working in Mumbai, I don’t think you can live anywhere else” .No wonder Mumbai has become the most populous city of India. This city is undeniably infectious. It’s a living city that is always up and about. A city that is diverse yet united, inclusive yet varied, chaotic yet fascinating. Mumbai has been a city with a spirit of gold and a determination to never say die, even in the wake of terrorist attacks and natural calamities. It energizes every single habitant of it with its vigor and vivacity. It’s undoubtedly a legendary city.

But have we ever wondered what makes this city so distinctive? Is it the city’s culture or is its history? Or is it the city’s humid climatic conditions? I strongly believe that it is the people of Mumbai which makes Mumbai so exceptional. Mumbai has a strange mix of people with different backgrounds and ethnicities but with one goal that is achieving their dreams.

People have different dreams ranging from having a full sumptuous meal to becoming a superstar or a CEO of some multinational company or having a start-up to one’s name. However, small or big it may be, dreams are always special. The people of Mumbai together build-up a strong sense of positivity which gives it this indomitable spirit. People from various states have come in here to achieve their dreams and then settled down here with their families. People from all over the world come to see Mumbai. It’s a place of pride for India. Even the attractions for tourists of Mumbai hugely comprise of the different institutions of people rather than the routine structures and architectural monuments which usually comprise any city’s tourism tours. One such celebratory and great institution is the dabbawala community. Dressed in white outfit and traditional cap, these are the men delivering home-cooked food to the people in their offices from their homes. Dabbawalas have been in service since 1980 and consist of an army of roughly around 5000 dabbawalas who lug between homes and offices of people to satisfy their palate by delivering meals straight from their homes. They not only deliver food but also the care, affection and love of the family members connected with the food which make the emotional bonds stronger. The dabbawalas in a day feed almost 2, 00,000 Mumbaikars. The dabbawalas are so greatly admired not only for the gigantic number of deliveries but also for the utmost precision and the accuracy with which they deliver.

It all started in the late 1800s.The British had predominantly taken control of all the prime locations of India. Due to Mumbai’s proximity to the seas, it became a place of great importance for the British and their businesses during their Raj. A lot of textile mills started springing up. A lot of offices started coming up. This led to a plethora of opportunities for employment. The Parsis were one such community who had a lot of men setting up new businesses and factories amongst the Indians in Mumbai. Due to constant famines and droughts, a lot of men from rural areas started moving into cities like Mumbai in search of employment. One such job-seeker, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, came to Mumbai in search of a job. Such Marathi men wearing a topi could be seen – and still can be – seen at any crossroads, waiting to be hired for all sorts of work. On one such fine day, Bachche ji was employed by an anonymous Parsee banker to go to his home in Grant Road, collect his tiffin and deliver it to his office on Ballard Pier. It then became a routine work for Bachche ji. This idea was likened by a lot of people and it started taking pace as people preferred eating home-cooked meals. A lot of Parsi women came together and set up small canteens to provide home-cooked meals to the immigrants who were working in offices and wanted to have a home-cooked meal. As Parsi food picks up its culinary cues from a lot of cultures, it was very well liked by people from different ethnicities and backgrounds as they were able to relate to the food in some way or the other. These parsi women also used to employ these topi-clad Marathi men for delivering the home-cooked dabbas. Many such men got employed in delivery and return of tiffins. Mahadeo Bachche, being a visionary, established a regular group of such workers. He played a fundamental role in laying the foundation of this legendary community of dabbawalas. What seemed like typical “coolie” work soon took on a different connotation to straightforward delivery work, thanks to the formation of an association governed by a set of internal rules and with a solid reputation for reliability. Initially, the dabbawalas only used to deliver food. However, later on, as cotton mills were set up and there was a huge requirement of cheap, unskilled labor, many men started migrating from villages in lure of these fixed paying mill jobs. There was a need of cheap home-cooked meals. A lot of canteens and small eateries were set up by women especially widows which started providing food to these workers. The dabbawalas then started carrying food from such eateries to these workers. Eventually, the dabbawalas started merging with such eateries and started their own canteens and provide meals. Though the cotton mills have been long shut down, the dabbawalas still continue. They have been able to find new customers due to their reliability and sheer dedication towards work. Today, the new horizon for the delivery service includes school children, staff in large shopping malls, new tertiary sector professionals and all those who want to eat home-cooked food with guaranteed hygiene standards in an increasingly polluted city.

The 5000 or so dabbawalas in the city have an astounding service record, Every working day they transport more than 2,00,000 lunchboxes throughout Mumbai. That entails conducting upwards of 4,00,000 transactions in six hours each day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year(minus holidays), but mistakes are extremely rare. Amazingly, these dabbawalas have achieved that level of performance at very low cost, in an eco-friendly way, without the use of any IT systems. It has endured famines, wars, monsoons, Hindu-Muslim riots, and a series of terrorist attacks.

How can a poorly educated, decentralized workforce perform so beautifully in an environment that can charitably be described as unpredictable and challenging? It’s because the dabbawalas have an overall system whose basic pillars—organization, management, process, and culture—are perfectly aligned and mutually reinforcing.


A Clockwork Design

A key to the dabbawalas’ operations is the Mumbai Suburban Railway, one of the most extensive, complex, and heavily used urban commuter lines in the world. Its basic layout allows delivery people with bicycles and handcarts to travel short distances between the stations and customers’ homes and offices. On any given day, a dabba changes hands several times. In the morning a worker picks it up from the customer’s home and takes it (along with other dabbas) to the nearest train station, where it is sorted and put onto a wooden crate according to its destination. It is then taken by train to the station closest to its destination. There it is sorted again and assigned to another worker, who delivers it to the right office before lunchtime. In the afternoon the process runs in reverse, and the dabba is returned to the customer’s home. To perform their work most efficiently, the dabbawalas have organized themselves into roughly 200 units of about 25 people each. These small groups have local autonomy. Such a flat organizational structure is perfectly suited to providing a low-cost delivery service.

A Regulatory Framework

The railway system sets the pace and rhythm of work. The daily schedule determines when certain tasks need to be done and the amount of time allowed for each. For instance, 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 in an environment that might otherwise be chaotic. In addition, it provides clear feedback when performance 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.


A Self-Organized Democracy

The dabbawalas essentially manage themselves with respect to hiring, logistics, customer acquisition and retention, and conflict resolution.

This helps them operate efficiently and keep costs low and the quality of service high. All workers contribute to a charitable trust that provides insurance and occasional financial aid—for example, when a worker needs to replace a bicycle that’s been stolen or is broken beyond repair. Each dabbawala is an entrepreneur who is responsible for negotiating prices with his own customers. However, governing committees set guidelines for prices, which take into account factors such as the distance between a customer’s residence and office and the distance between that office and the closest railway station. Because dabbawalas own their relationships with customers and tend to work in the same location for years, those relationships are generally long-term, trusting ones. The dabbawalas within a group don’t have a monopoly over any particular area; they’re encouraged to seek out new customers, even in a building that is served by a colleague.

However, once the relationship is established, no other dabbawala is permitted to go after the same customer and “steal” him. The dabbawalas take advantage of their more-relaxed afternoon schedule to interact with customers to share information about upcoming changes, collect monthly fees, and discuss any issues. When someone wants to join a local dabbawala group, the group will assess whether there’s enough demand to add another person. New hires are trained on the job by the group. They learn to assist in all activities. After a probation period of six months, they can buy into the business with a sum equal to 10 times their expected monthly income. Workers with more than 10 years of experience serve as supervisors, or muqaddams. Every group has one or more muqaddams, who supervise the coding, sorting, and loading and unloading of dabbas and are responsible for resolving disputes, overseeing collections, and troubleshooting. They also pick up and deliver dabbas themselves. Members elect representatives from among the muqaddams to serve on two managing committees that meet monthly to tackle operational and organizational issues as well as problems that cannot be resolved at the local level.


A Self-Organized Democracy

For the dabbawalas, having the right process in place means more than simply implementing efficient work flows. It also entails just about everything in the organization, including the way information is managed, the use of built-in buffers, and a strict adherence to standards.

Simple codes – To convey information, the dabbawalas rely on a system of very basic symbols. The lid of a dabba has three key markings on it. The coding system contains just enough information for people to know where to deliver the dabbas, but it doesn’t allow for full addresses. The dabbawalas, who run the same route for years, don’t need all those details, and inserting them would clutter the lid, slow the sorting process, and possibly lead to errors.

Rigorous adherence to processes and standards – This minimizes variations that might throw a wrench into the works. The dabbas, for instance, are all roughly the same size and cylindrical shape. To encourage customers to conform, containers incur an additional fee when, say, they are so large that they require special handling. Unusual containers that interfere with the delivery operation are simply not accepted. This uniformity allows the dabbas to be packed quickly onto crates, which are also a standard size so that they can be efficiently loaded onto trains. The dabbawalas strictly observe certain rules. For instance, they don’t eat until they have completed all their deliveries. Workers are fined or fired for repeated mistakes and negligence. Customers are also expected to abide by the process. Those who are repeatedly late in having their dabbas ready for pickup and don’t respond to warnings are dropped. The system empowers frontline workers to take action—just as Toyota does in its manufacturing plants, where workers who spot problems can pull an “andon cord”to halt a production line so that they can be addressed immediately. Of course, no process is bulletproof. Dealing with customers who are a few minutes late preparing their dabbas is one thing; handling a citywide disruption like a major traffic jam or torrential monsoon is an entirely different matter.


A Self-Organized Democracy

Dabbawalas have a strong sense of belonging to and caring for something larger than themselves goes a long way. Due to this, people feel connected and work they perform gets more meaning.

Emotional Bonds And a Shared Identity – Dabbawalas, who range in age from 18 to 65, tend to remain in their groups for their entire working lives. (There is no mandatory retirement age.) As a result members of each team care deeply for one another. New workers are typically friends or relatives of existing members, and though Mumbai is a melting pot of religions, ethnicities, and dialects, most dabbawalas have the same culture, language, values, work ethic, diet, and religious beliefs. While on the job, the dabbawalas wear the same style of clothes and white Gandhi caps, making them easy to identify. A handful of them are women, who typically perform administrative functions or special services (such as pickup or delivery at irregular times) that command a higher fee. Undoubtedly, their strong ties contribute to the dabbawalas’ extraordinary track record.

A Simple Mission – It’s really commendable to see the devotion shown by the dabbawalas’ to their simple mission: Delivering food on time, every time. For the dabbawalas, that task is akin to delivering medicine to the sick, and serving food is like serving God. That explains their extreme dedication to their jobs during the floods of July 2005.

A Self-Reinforcing System

Dabbawalas is a successful running institution not due to the individual pillars it stands on but majorly due to the ways in which the pillars reinforce one another. For instance, the coding system. It is simple and visual, which allows the dabbawalas to sort dabbas quickly. This allows the use of a hub-and-spoke organization in which the railway stations serve as hubs and hence the need for centralized management is minimal.

Dabbawalas have truly set a veritable example in the management industry due to their simplistic ways of doing their work and yet achieve the best of results. There are innumerable lessons to be learnt from these humble dabbawalas. Many top notch universities such as Harvard and leading companies like Microsoft, Accenture and SAP have invited members of this association and done detailed case studies on their functionality and business models. Students from business schools worldwide come and spend a day with the dabbawalas in order to experience this entire feat of delivering dabbas. Just by merely observing them or spending a day with them, one can learn so many things. The dabbawalas have an effective hierarchy system which helps in proper management and allocation of work. The time management and accuracy displayed by them is really exceptional. It has garnered them a Six Sigma efficiency rating of 99.999999 and this was proudly reported in the 1998 Forbes magazine. The dabbawalas consider the customer as their king. It is of utmost importance in a service industry to treat customers well. The dabbawalas let go off their thirst and hunger and do not care about the hardships they face at times just to deliver the dabbas on time. The passion connected with the work they do has led them to reach great heights in their business. Many case-studies have been featured on dabbawalas by many management institutes such as IIM – Ahmadabad. Dabbawalas have found their fans in none less than the royalty; Prince Charles during his visit to India had specifically adjusted his schedule to meet the dabbawalas and had invited them to his wedding with Camilla Parker Bowles. Richard Branson actually went a step ahead and delivered dabbas to his own employees along with the dabbawalas.

The dabbawalas are here to stay and what evidence more is needed if they have been running successfully since past 3 generations despite new job opportunities and modern food delivery systems. India’s Amazon, Flipkart has teamed up with the dabbawalas for their deliveries. So in spite of the technology boom, dabbawalas are still uncommitted to it and are yet being offered new opportunity spaces to showcase their collective skills. It’s because the dabbawalas deliver more than just lunch boxes. They also deliver social causes and give their support for different causes. The dabbawalas showed their support to Anna Hazare’s protest against corruption. They also spread awareness and support causes through their delivery system. Recently, they delivered this message – “We condemn the illegal custody of Kulbhushan Jadhav and demand his immediate release”, along with the tiffins they delivered on 18th April 2017.

Although there is a huge amount of food available in the city, it is not considered like any other merchandise. If it were, customers would not use the dabba service: they would buy lunch anywhere. The decision to eat home-cooked food represents the continuity of a certain idea of tradition, suggesting that nourishment is actually what Arjun Appadurai calls ”a powerful semiotic device”, with tangible and intangible forms that are able to convey relationships with production and exchange. The tiffin service means being able to eat home-cooked food at work and this simple act placates the city, reaffirming the specifities of each community within its boundaries. Dabbawalas make Mumbai a city gearing up for the future but still deep-rooted in its traditions.

(By Vrajesh Gopal Patel)

Mumbai, the rightful crowned jewel of India is home to 19 million inhabitants. A city that is a breeding grounds for wannabe money makers. A city that is synonymous with glamour and fame. A city whose mere name is the source of aspiration for many fortunately unfortunate rural India. A city that houses both the locals and migrants from all the other states of India. A city that is a true metropolitan city of India. A city where dreams of people are realized. And a city where entrepreneurs find opportunities in what others define as most absurd areas of businesses.

Among the innumerous businesses that flourish in this city which is the economic capital of India, survives a legendary system that is amongst the best if not the best supply chain management systems in the world. A distribution network that has been functional since 1890, still grows at pace of 5-10% annually in the face of business threats from the internationally established food chain owners. Amidst all the global logistics companies present in the industrial hub of Mumbai, little does anyone know about the excellence of complex delivery system made easy by sheer operational brilliance and simplicity of the so called illiterate yet genius innovators of service industry. Enter the DABBAWALA!

What is entrepreneurship? To put it in simple terms, it is all about creating a link between a demand source and a supply destination. Demand and supply are the two basic terminologies used to describe any business. It is the mindset of Indians be it of the working class or manager level professionals that there is nothing that can beat the taste of home cooked meal. Looking objectively, for Indians it is this psychological factor that makes them think that in order to satisfy their hunger, home cooked meals are the best option. Moreover the concept of ‘Outside Food or Junk food’ discourages them to go for fast food restaurants. This triggers the need for home cooked food in the minds of those who are somewhat health conscious and do not trust and consider other outlets for food consumption. Another reason that can be credited for the demand of such a service is that most of the companies in Mumbai do not avail canteen facilities for their employees due to various reasons; one of them being shortage of space. This encourages the practice of having tiffin during lunch.

However, working professionals cannot afford to travel back and forth, just for the sake of their mid-day meals. Most of these working professionals have their offices located in southern side of the city. While their homes are located at much affordable northern suburbs. This is the demand and supply gap which has been in picture since the advent of the industrial revolution from Europe to India during the British Raj. Such was the necessity that led to the invention of this system of delivering home cooked meals to the hungry souls at their place of work.

The Idea was envisioned by Mahadev Havaji Bachche in 1890 which he implemented with the help of a meagre workforce of just about hundred other men. Most of these men are related to each other. They belong to the ‘Varkari’ sect. Additionally all of the dabbawalas belong to the same village background around Pune. As the demand grew a need to unionize the dabbawalas was felt and same was done in 1930 shaping it into a more organized form. In 1954 a cooperative was formed with the name of ‘Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity trust’ by Dhondiba Medge who was the first chairman of the trust. The association was registered with the name in 1984.  Its establishment as a charity trust reflects its social commitment to sponsoring various non-profit projects.

Despite most of the people in the organization being from rural India and that too of semi-literate nature the trust shows a different level of structural sophistication in terms their Human Resource management. Which is evident from the organizational structure of the trust. An executive committee of thirteen permanent members sits at the highest level of the NMTBSCT, and it is responsible for defining and fine-tuning the overall dabba transport system in Mumbai. A second tier consists of about 800 mukadams, who are the group leaders in charge of a team of five or ten dabbawalas. The rest of the organisation is made up of the dabbawalas themselves, the members of the association. Each of the approximately 120 groups present on Mumbai territory is independent of all the others: it is a “Strategic Business Unit”. All in all the trust showcases brilliance not only in its operational efficiency but also in its Human Resource practices by adopting such an organizational structure which imbibes trust among the dabbawalas and fairness by means of electoral selection for the higher posts. The atmosphere in the organisation is thus of belongingness which results in highly motivated employees like the theory ‘Y’ kind of people from Douglas McGregor’s theory of motivation.

Sant Jalaram one of the great saints of Gujarat once said that there is no greater deed than feeding the hungry. And rightly so hunger doesn’t discriminate between scepters or scythe similarly neither does it discriminate between the working class and professional white collar employees. The dabbawalas are responsible for delivering 2,00,000 such souls that crave for home cooked meals daily. This continues for six days a week and for 51 weeks a year. Such is their commitment towards their work.

India is a country where efficiency and quality is quite often ignored even in some of the most revered business organizations of the nation. These organizations have all the resources but yet fail to achieve such standards. And here is a small organisation of about five thousand employees which depict such an operational efficiency that only once does a tiffin goes astray in two months which amounts to; if calculated, a level of Six Sigma. This is an epitome of quality renowned in the world. This is the quality that is envy for most other corporate companies.

Many foreign dignitaries have shown a keen interest on such a small organisation which has lasted the tide of this entire century where many so called flourishing businesses have failed to last longer than a decade in this volatile market. Among them being Prince Charles of the royal family of England. The system has been featured in the prestigious Harvard University as a case study creating curiosity in the minds of aspiring business professionals.

What is it that makes the dabbawala trust a pride of Mumbai? Is it their operational efficiency or the praise that they receive from all over the world? If you ask me, it is trust that is the factor that they have successfully instilled in the minds of their customers. So much so that customers aren’t even afraid to send their cheque books with the tiffins. A trust that goes beyond religion and race. A trust that is so strong that people are not hesitant to send their love through their meals to the one’s that they love. And so the dabbawala system is an organisation worthy of such praise and in truism is the pride of Mumbai and Mumbaikars.