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The Glorious Legacy of Mumbai Dabbawalas

By Janvi Punjabi

Introduction

Without the shadow of a doubt, we can say that Dabbawalas are the lifeline of Mumbai. Every day, umpteen people living in and around Mumbai rise early in the morning, get ready for their work, and leave their house to reach their workplace from one part of the city to another while braving the traffic jams and crowded trains, and buses. The fast-paced life in a metropolitan city like Mumbai demands the optimum utilization of time and all of us have been trying to live up to it. Meanwhile, their loved ones back at home would ensure that a scrumptious and healthy meal would be prepared and served at lunchtime. Here come our saviours the Dabbawalas, who promise the delivery of the tiffin box at a fixed hour, EVERYDAY!

In Mumbai, a ‘dabba’ is coined as a stainless steel tiffin box, round about 15 cm in diameter and 30 cm high that people carry with food in it. The people in this process who are engaged in the job of collecting, organising, and transporting these dabbas filled with the goodness of home cooked food between homes and offices, are known as the Dabbawalas. They are a community of people on whom lakhs of people in Mumbai rely for their lunch. These people, on their part, are so dependable and efficient that they seldom fail to deliver the right dabba at the right time.

So, if you happen to be in Mumbai for a while, meeting up a dabbawala at some key train stations like Victoria Terminus, Churchgate, Bombay Central, having a short conversation with them, watching them do their job, and clicking a few pictures might just be one of the unique experiences you can look forward to and honestly, it will just brighten their day.

This community has very rightly established itself as the food bearers of the city for a period of more than 125 years now. With about 5000 driven people with the intent of properly delivering home-cooked meals to the offices or workplace workers all across Mumbai on time, this organization has become part of Mumbai’s rich heritage.

With an accuracy of 99.96% of delivering food tiffins to the consumers, this organization has gained the appreciation of Richard Branson, Prince Charles, and many other world-class organizations, who now line up at their doorsteps to learn some different techniques by taking a one day Mumbai dabbawala tour.

Started by the legendary Mahadeo Havaji Bachche in 1890, this huge food delivery service became popular soon after it kicked off. Primarily, this started with one Parsi officer not being able to bring his lunch box one day to reach the office on time and that’s when it all started.

He requested another person to help him bring his lunch box from home and that’s exactly how the Dabbawala food delivery system started. This service is a blessing for over 200,000 Mumbai office goers today who get home-cooked food on time in their office and avoid any fast food.

Unlike any other routine services, their belief and purpose in delivering food are to serve God. They are not ordinary delivery service people, they are a strong community who have a common goal of passionately delivering food. This vision is synonymous with serving God.

Starting with just 100 dabbawalas at first, this service boomed as a powerhouse that helped people feed their families. In this blog, you will figure out how from 100 to now 5,000 plus dabbawala are delivering food flawlessly and smoothly to hundreds of thousands of lunch boxes six days a week without any single error. 

Dated today, the Mumbai Dabbawalas deliver more than 2 lakh tiffin boxes all across the city without leaving any room for errors. Their elaborate yet super-efficient tiffin marking system which is well-versed among each dabbawala doesn’t leave any inch of doubt in their ability to deliver at the right address, at the right time.

This near-perfect system was recognised and appreciated by Harvard Business School as a ‘six sigma system’. According to expert analysis, the possibility of the dabbawalas making a mistake was ‘one in 8 million deliveries’.

Currently, a minimum of 5,000 dabbawalas are involved in this huge business. They are collectively a part of an organised cooperative business that also offers job security and a secure source of income. A large number of dabbawalas come from the Varkari community of Maharashtra. It is a community bound together based on common interests and strong relations, implying that the next generation will also prefer choosing to become a dabbawala like their fathers.

Generally, the dabbawalas do not come from a very literate background. Therefore, the whole system works on symbols, signs, and colours for organising and delivery of lunch boxes. Every task happens depending on an assigned code, colour, or symbol. For example, an abbreviation is used for the pickup point of the lunchbox, colour coding is used for starting stations, numbers are assigned for destination stations, and markings are used for the dabbawala who are supposed to handle and deliver the lunchbox to the final destination.

7 things we must learn from the Dabbawalas:

Passion and Practice

Around 35% of dabbawalas are illiterate, and their average education level of the workforce is generally up to 8th grade. Even so, they have created an extremely sound and reliable delivery model that could easily be responsible for even the most highly educated worker. Initially, they developed a colour-coding system for the lunchboxes, but as the city and the demand for their services grew, this developed a highly reliable alpha-numeric system. Many dabbawalas can’t read the alphabet but can recognize and differentiate the letters and numbers based on their very distinct shapes. On average, each dabbawala can carry a weight of up to 130 to 150 pounds. The workforce includes dabbawalas as old as 75 years who take pride in their ability to support themselves with their hard work. “No excuses” is their motto and this is surely something we must learn from them.

Ownership 

“Ownership is a feeling that an employee has to instil in oneself, and unless you get that feeling of ownership you can not work excellently”, rightly stated by experts. 

Undoubtedly, driving through this is an important aspect when it comes to startups. Building an on-point culture is an integral part of making your startup successful. Very few people today aspire to become people who are vital enough to work within the organizations they work for. If your startup is driving and promoting that culture, appreciating the hard work of the employees, and giving the employees and stakeholders to nurture ownership of any kind, you would see the efficiency increase immediately. This has surely been one of the key factors of the rapid growth of Dabbawalas over time. 

Build, Measure, Learn

Analysing the need to keep pace with the rapidly-proliferating world around us and the use of mobile technology in the city and globally, the Dabbawala Association recently started to use technology and now allows for delivery through SMS. According to the organization, it sees a growth rate of between 5 and 10 percent every year. This depicts how the Dabbawalas have kept up with the current times and make sure they use all the resources around them.

As Lean As It Gets

If you consider the Dabbawalas and their business model, their investment is literal a bare minimum-two wheeled bicycle, and a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta pyjamas, and the trademark white Gandhi cap, or topi as it’s called. The returns in this case are based on the capital monthly division of earnings of each unit. 

It also works on standardization as far as you look at it. The process is fully standardized. They charge their customers around 450 rupees (US $7.95) per month, and they acquire scalability in the form of gaining more traction and customers as they go. This is the secret behind their huge customer base. 

When you look at this business, there is certainly a lot more that everyone can learn from it, but one important aspect that can not be overlooked no matter which business your startup in, is that the customer is king! In fact, dabbawalas go a step further. They regard their customer as their Lord Vitthala. Now that’s something that says a lot about what they stand for, doesn’t it?

Time Management

For businesses that provide delivery service-the most important parameter or factor to be considered is time. Any disparity in the timeliness of the service results in service failure or a bend in goodwill. Hence the mission to deliver the Dabbas starts every morning at 9 and by lunchtime which is about 12 noon, all the boxes are coded, dispatched and delivered. Post lunch, the whole process is reversed and the dabbas are returned to the respective houses. The time management in this case is amazing.

Approach of Trustworthiness 

Dabbawalas do not open the lunchboxes to see what is in them. They only pick the lunchboxes from the houses and deliver them to customers at a workplace. However, if at times a client forgets to carry his mobile or chequebook or glasses, his family members put those things in one of the boxes and Dabbawala, without knowing what is in it, delivers it to the customer. Carrying cash in local trains is risky, sometimes; those clients who get their salary in cash put the entire amount in one of the boxes of a lunchbox and get it delivered at home safely. Trust is the key.

Keep the Process Plain and Simple 

One of the key takeaways any organization can learn from the Dabbawalas is the simplicity with which this system works. The Dabbawalas are intimately aware of what their customers value (food delivered on time, every day). And, just as importantly, they don’t try to do anything other than that. They don’t overcomplicate things. They simply understand what their customers want, and they focus 100 percent of their time and energy on making the ends meet. As you look at your performance chain, how can you simplify your system? Can you take pieces that are not meeting the single customer need out of the chain? And, do you know what your individual customer needs? That is always a good place to start.

Collaborations with Restaurants

A lot of hospitality giants are employing several dabbawalas, who will service direct delivery orders received on the company’s tech-enabled platforms for brands like SOCIAL, Smoke House Deli and Salt Water Cafe.

Ordering directly from restaurants, instead of the aggregators, is empowering because we have direct and deeper relationships with the customers, while also helping in saving on prohibitive commissions being paid out to them.Being able to pass these savings on to the customers and allow them to benefit directly. Now, ordering directly is also helping to provide employment to the dabbawalas, who have lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic.

Efficeniency in Business Models

It is said that this model of Dabbawalas cannot be replicated elsewhere due to the infrastructure of Mumbai. The ethics and values of the Dabbawalas community involved in this business make it extremely difficult to replicate it elsewhere, though not impossible. However, it appears that people working in organized and structured organizations have much to learn from this lot of primarily uneducated people. We can learn from their values, ethics, and principles towards their work. 

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