Mumbai dabbawala shares secret of success with Dubai accountants

June 21st, 2008 - 3:50 pm ICT by IANS  

By Aroonim Bhuyan
Dubai, June 21 (IANS) Forget about the coding system that Mumbai’s dabbawalas use to transport lunch boxes from homes to offices or the six-sigma and ISO certificates they have. The men who ensure workers in India’s financial capital get their food on time credit their success to simple principles: stick to time and work is worship. A conference of chartered accountants in Dubai this week, which heard presentations on topics like wealth structuring crisis, India’s cost competitiveness, Middle East equity markets and commodities cycle, was perked up by a presentation on Mumbai’s ubiquitous dabbawalas.

The men who transport lunch boxes have been a subject of study for management gurus like C.K. Prahalad and schools like Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and those in the American Ivy League.

Invited by the Dubai chapter of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, Manish Tripathi, honorary director of Mumbai’s dabbawalas, gave a presentation on the trade wearing a now globally recognizable dabbawala white cap and swearing with his hand on a tiffin box that he would “say the truth and nothing but truth” about his trade.

“Believe me, I will give you so much knowledge about dabbawalas that any of you can come to Mumbai and start working as a dabbawala,” he told an over-1,000 strong audience at a five start hotel here.

“Our work revolves around a few beliefs - the most important ones of which are sticking to time and believing that work is worship,” he said.

“Annadan is mahadan (giving food is the greatest charity). We dabbawalas have a strong belief in god. But you don’t see god, do you? So, whom do you worship? People - after all, they are creations of god. You worship god by ensuring that people get to eat their food on time,” he said while making the Powerpoint presentation that was prepared for the dabbawalas by an IIM student.

“Time,” Tripathi said, “is the first thing any dabbawala has to stick to if he has to succeed in the trade.”

He explained how every dabbawala believed that he was a descendant of great Maratha leader Shivaji and came from the same community.

“Our forefathers fought under Shivaji against powerful enemies. Today, we wage our war against time,” he said, adding that this is what ensures that an office-goer in Mumbai gets his or her homemade food for lunch precisely at 12:30 p.m. every working day of the week.

There are around 5,000 dabbawalas in Mumbai today delivering around 200,000 tiffin-boxes amounting to 400,000 transactions every day - first delivering the tiffin boxes and then delivering the empty boxes back home.

Every dabbawala has to report for duty at their designated locations at precisely 9:30 a.m.

From then on, their work starts. For three hours - “We call this war time” - the dabbawalas work in a high pressure environment in traffic-congested Mumbai as they move dabbas on foot, carts and local trains to deliver the food to their customers across various places in India’s commercial capital.

“We ensure that all our customers too stick to time. A dabbawala waits at a household to collect a dabba for half-a-minute to two minutes and not more. A housewife may delay in handing over a dabba for a day or two and not more than that,” he said.

“After all, her delaying one dabba will mean delaying thousands of dabbas across the system, which means thousands of people will not get their food on time,” he said.

“On the other end, if the office worker cannot have his lunch on time, then he has to keep two dabbas so that our dabbawala can bring back the previous day’s empty dabba. That usually happens with a new employee when the boss loads them with so much work that they don’t have time for lunch,” he said amid resounding laughter.

For three hours, the dabbawalas work on war footing to cover around 60-70 km so that their customers get their lunch on time.

“Red lights, traffic jams, pedestrian crossings cannot stop us. Even policemen in Mumbai let us go when they see our trademark white cap,” he said.

So what is the motivating factor for the dabbawalas?

“Every dabbawala is a stakeholder in the system. That is the single most motivating factor. Nobody is an employee. Which is why there has not been a single record of strike in our business,” he said.

This is what goes into the dabbawalas’ supply chain management - much studied by management gurus and schools - which has ensured a now globally renowned error rate of one in 16 million transactions.

That and the coding system are the factors for the success of their supply chain management.

“We cannot afford to have a mistake. Imagine what trust people will have on our services if a customer having orthodox vegetarian Jain food gets someone else’s chicken curry!” Tripathi said.

As for the educational qualifications of the dabbawalas, Tripathi put his thumb up to mean most are illiterate. “Maybe 15 percent of us reach Class 8. More than that and we will start having problems. Educated people have many questions - why, how - which can act as hindrances in our strictly time-based trade,” he said, adding that disputes within dabbawalas, if any, were resolved on the spot.

“Our workers just have the basic knowledge of alphabets and numerals which help them write the codes on the tiffin boxes.”

Explaining the major features of the dabbawalas’s supply chain management, Tripathi, who had given similar presentations at IIMs, Stanford University and George Washington State University among others, said: “Zero percent reliance on fuel, zero percent use of modern technology, zero percent investment, zero percent disputes, 99.99 percent performance rate and 100 percent customer satisfaction.”

On the question of whether the opening of multinational fast food chains in Mumbai was a threat to dabbawalas, he said: “As long as there is a husband who loves his wife and his homemade food, we will be there.”

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