A comparative insight: the Dabbawalas

A simple service, unlike any other

The Dabbawala offer a service dating back to 1880 delivering fresh home-cooked meals to Mumbai businessmen. Their mothers and wives prepare the food at home and rely on the Dabbawala to deliver the meal safely. The word Dabbawala translates literally as “box person” – a Dabba being a type of Indian lunchbox, also known as a tiffin. The freshly cooked meals are collected from homes in the northern residential parts of the city, and are delivered to the offices of the southern working district on time, six days a week and come rain or shine.

It sounds plain enough. When asked what other company the Dabbawala could be compared to, Dhondu Kondaji Chowdhury, who like every other employee is also a shareholder, responded: “There is a service called Fed-Ex that is similar to ours – but they don’t deliver lunch”.

Complex logistics without leaving a paper-trail

Yet in spite of the simplicity of the concept, the complexity of the operation is also plain to see, with 200 000 deliveries every day. The simple genius of the logistics lies in the colour-coded labelling system, from which the workers can interpret home and work addresses. Over the course of their long history, the Dabbawalas have fine-tuned their system to achieve the optimum balance of detail and simplicity to ensure that each tiffin makes its daily return journey speedily and without error. What makes this all the more impressive is that the majority of the 500-strong Dabbawala are illiterate.

The Dabbawallah are quick to point out that the majority of their workers are, in their words, “uneducated”. In fact they believe it is one of the secrets of their success, along with their innate Indian capacity for mathematical thinking. One spokesman for the group said “the uneducated have an ability to memorise and retain more as opposed to the educated who are used to writing down everything.”

All transportion is completed on foot, bike or public train service. In fact, train station platforms become a temporary sorting office even during rush hour in order to dispatch the meals across the city. To maximise efficiency, a single tiffin can be expected to pass through 3 or 4 hands on each journey.

Technology isn’t always the answer

In 2005 the Dabbawala announced their decision to use modern technology for the first time. However, a basic website and the ability to sign up to the service via email and text message are the extent of their foray thus far. The vast majority of the service – including the entire logistics of the deliveries themselves – is achieved without any technological aide: “Our computer is our head.”

The Dabbawala are fiercely proud and take their responsibilities very seriously. Occasionally, when a Dabba is stolen and sold on, the Dabbawala visit markets to buy back the box and return it to its righful owner. This culture of commitment to excellence is arguably the root cause of their remarkable track record, which has brought them international recognition. Forbes reported that their error rate is 1 in 6 million deliveries.