They have no employees, no technology and most can’t even read or write. Yet the dabbawalas of Mumbai have one of the best supply chains in the world. Jo Best reports.

The dabbawalas – a familiar site in Mumbai’s streets thanks to their trademark white shirts and caps – are responsible for keeping the city’s workers fed, delivering lunches made by workers’ wives to their husbands’ offices each day.

Every working day, the dabbawalas pick up 200,000 meals from the homes of the city’s residents and deliver them to Mumbai’s offices in time for lunch. Later that afternoon, the dabbawalas return to the workplaces, collect the lunchboxes and take them back to the right home in time for the containers to be used for lunch the next day.

While 85 per cent of the dabbawalas are illiterate, only one in 16 million of their deliveries go astray – an enviable record, and one that has won the dabbawalas a six-sigma rating for reliability and a place on the syllabus of various business schools.

Mumbai dabbawala

The dabbawalas are a familiar sight in Mumbai
(Photo credit: babasteve via Flickr.com under the following Creative Commons licence)

So how do the dabbawalas keep their supply chain on track – and operate a virtual monopoly in one of India’s biggest cities – without any logistics software and not an RFID tag in sight?

SLAs for customers
While the dabbawalas are known for their sky-high levels of reliability, they demand the same from their customers.

To keep the supply chain on track, each client of the dabbawalas has to be able to deliver just as reliably and just as quickly.

When a dabbawala calls at a customer’s house to pick up the lunchbox, they have just five seconds to give the dabbawala the container or he’ll move on without it, leaving one city worker hungry. Customers who fail to produce the lunchbox on time for a week are dropped.

This measure is necessary, according to the dabbawalas’ Manish Tripathi, because one bad customer would result in “thousands of good customers failing to get their lunch on time”.

Customers are expected to deliver their lunchboxes – usually the multi-layered steel containers known as tiffin boxes – at a set time after 9.30am to make sure that by 12.30pm, the box will be on the desk of its owner.

Between 9.30am and 12.30pm, it’s what the dabbawalas call ‘war time’. “Our 5,000 dabbawalas wage war on…

…streets of Mumbai to make sure the tiffin boxes get to the right customer at the right time… Red light, no entry, zebra crossing – everything is crossed by our members,” Tripathi told journalists at an event arranged by technology service company HCL in Delhi last week.

No employees, just members
Another factor that the dabbawalas believe contribute to the organisation’s success is that it doesn’t have employees – it has members.

Started in 1880, the dabbawalas’ operation became a charitable trust in 1956 with every worker paid the same from the organisation’s profits.

“Everyone is a shareholder and I need not tell you what the difference is,” Tripathi said. “If I am an employee, no matter if I do bad job or worse job… I get a pay cheque at the end of the month.”

dabbawala delivery tiffin box

Dabbawalas deliver to offices anywhere in reach of Mumbai’s railway system
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

“In 120 years [that the dabbawala business has operated] we have never gone on strike,” he added. “The reason sounds very simple – each of us is a shareholder. Employees go on strike, shareholders do not.”

The dabbawalas also have a shared history, with members initially drawn from the same farming communities of Maharashtra. Today, the dabbawalas remain a close-knit bunch – when one dabbawala wants to leave, he must find his own replacement – with a common cultural background that encompasses religion, language, and food preferences.

The customer is god
It’s in this shared background, according to Tripathi, that the customer is, almost literally, god.

“I meet a lot of corporate guys and what they tell me is Monday morning is the worst of their life,” he said. “They know the hell that is in front of them… Whenever we are working, we do not have any stress at all – because serving people is serving god.”

By serving people – that is, god’s creations – the dabbawalas are effectively serving god: “We treat our customer as god, or the reflection of god – and we serve our customer as if we were serving god.”

And while the dabbawala system may have…

…been run in much the same way for over a century, its members have adapted their service to fit the changing nature of Indian society in the 21st century.

“These days being single has become a fashion – more and more people are choosing to remain single. There’s no one at home to cook food for them – so we collect food from the restaurants and deliver.

“If you want continental food, we serve it. If you want Mexican food, we serve it. If you want food without salt, we serve it. Whatever food you want, we serve it,” Tripathi said.

A human storage system
The dabbawalas know what region of Mumbai to deliver each tiffin box to by a system of seven alphanumeric colour-coded markings that are printed on their lid, but the exact address of the home and office that the box travels between is not held in a database – it’s kept purely in the memory of the individual dabbawala allocated to that area.

There is no technological back-up for the dabbawalas – their supply chain is run entirely on manpower.

dabbawala delivery tiffin box

The dabbawalas deliver some 200,000 lunches across Mumbai every day
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

A back seat for technology
According to Tripathi there are two reasons why the dabbawalas don’t use technology in their supply chain. First, the literacy rates among workers: “The guys are not educated enough – they can’t handle the complexity.”

The second reason is purely financial: “Number two why we do not use technology, maybe the cost… will increase,” he added.

It’s often been suggested that the dabbawalas use RFID tags to keep track of the various tiffin boxes – which can pass through the hands of six dabbawalas before being delivered. However, adding the track-and-trace tags is just too expensive for such a financially lean organisation, where each customer typically pays 250 to 300 rupees a month – between £3.50 and £4.20 – for their service.

While the dabbawalas may tout their organisation as a “company that doesn’t use any IT at all”, even a system as ancient as theirs doesn’t get by without any IT whatsoever. The dabbawalas now have their own website, email address and take bookings by SMS too.