No tech, no logistics: Inside the world's best supply chain

How India's lunchbox men earn their six-sigma rating...

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 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...