16/05/2011 - Fun Team

The Dabbawallas are a global paradigm for business efficiency. BBC has made documentaries, the best business schools have studied them and even prince Charles or Richard Branson from Virgin experienced a day with them in Mumbai. They are rated Sigma 6, a methodology for the improvement of processes, and this means they have a 99.99966% accuracy rate. Only 1 of every 16 millions tiffins delivered end up at the wrong desk. And the ‘fun’ in it: they all come from humble backgrounds, many are illiterate, and share the same salary every month, even with the president! That’s it, probably the most efficient business in the world!

The context

The metropolitan area of Mumbai extends more than 60km. The particular characteristics of the public transport and the shape of the city makes commuting a troublesome experience for everyone. Overcrowded trains and long journeys make carrying your lunch together with the suitcase an impossible mission. Besides that, and despite the numerous restaurants and street vendors available throughout the business area of South Mumbai, nothing can be compared to home prepared food in terms of quality, hygiene and cost.

This large-scale business employs about 5,000 thousand people and delivers 200,000 lunch-boxes (dabbas) every working day. Created in 1890, the society running the business takes special care of gathering all the incomes and share the benefits equally to all its members, no matter how many dabbas you deliver. Dabbawallas (literally box-deliverers) come from humble backgrounds. Many of them are illiterate and the work conditions are hard, especially in summer with high temperatures and in rainy season. Some can carry loads up to 70kg on their heads!

The human chain takes about 3 to 4 hours to complete the process, which starts at your home with the picking of the tiffin at 9am, continues through the train until the delivering station and ends at your office desk by bike or foot at around 12:30pm. In the afternoon, they will pick up your box and deliver it back to your home. The price varies depending on the distance of the journey, usually translated between 600 to 900 rupees per month (around $15 to $20). To identify each dabba with its owner, there’s a coding system printed on the top created to identify the origin and destination stations, the area, building name and floor of delivery. Before, color threads were used to identify the tiffins. Nowadays, dabbawallas are trained to read the alphanumerical coding system.

On the day of the shooting, I was amazed to see them running up the stairs to deliver the tiffins on the right floor at the right time. They take their job very seriously and are aware of delivery time. At the end, everyone wants his food on the right desk at lunch time.

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