The clock struck 12.00 pm. I ran to the office receptionist to collect my Dabba (Hindi word for Lunchbox). The aroma of my mom’s delicious paneer tikka filled the office cafeteria. I could not thank the Dabbawala (lunchbox delivery man) enough. What could be a better way to treat yourself in office than to have home-made fresh paneer tikka on a rainy Mumbai afternoon!I wondered how the Dabbawala delivers a home-made lunchbox to me everyday on time? How does this service cost less than $10 a month for each customer? I was determined to find out how the foolproof pickup and delivery system works for thousands of customers.
And what I found blew my mind!
Dabbawalas pickup and deliver meals prepared in customers’ homes to their offices and then return the empty dabbas (metal lunchboxes) the same day. I have illustrated the journey of my Dabba through this system below:
The Dabba is prepared by my Mom at home and picked up by a Dabbawala at a specific time every day. He then carries my Dabba to the nearest subway station (along with about 30-40 other lunchboxes from my locality) on his bicycle.At the subway station he meets his colleagues who cover other localities in the area. Here, they sort lunchboxes according to destination station, office address and floor on which I sit.On average a destination is about 25 miles away! The Dabbawala has to then catch the right train to be on time. My Dabba travels in a subway train to reach the destination station where it is picked up by another Dabbawala who finally delivers it to my office.
On the surface, the Dabbawala system seems to be a straightforward service… until I understand that I am only one of 200,000+ customers that are served by them every day.
Every day 4500 to 5000 Dabbawalas pick up lunchboxes from 200,000+ home locations, and use 100+ subway stations and 10,000+ bicycle rides to deliver Dabbas at 200,000+ office locations before 12 noon and back home the same day!
And if you are not impressed yet, here is an amazing fact – the Dabbawala operation qualifies to be a six sigma operation with less than one mistake in 8 million lunchboxes or 16 million deliveries, since the lunchboxes are returned home each day! 
To top it all, what makes this system even more complex is the fact that they operate in Mumbai – one of the most populous cities in the world.
So how do they do this? Understanding the Dabbawala’s unique operating model sheds some light on how they achieve this miraculous feat every day.
- Simplifying the complex system – sorting and coding: Literacy among Dabbawalas is low to zero. This calls for implementing efficient work flows that are simple to understand and follow. The Dabba coding system uses colorful bands and uses 5 simple characters (as in the picture below) to designate the address of destination and source location. This code eliminates the need to insert a detailed address – thus speeding up the sorting process and reducing errors. 
- Focus on process control, standardization and continuous improvement: The failure in adherence of any process is very visible to everyone in the supply chain. Just like the ‘Andon Cord’ system at Toyota, high visibility leads to higher accountability and continuous participative problem solving. Every step of the process is standardized to minimize variation – from the size of the lunchboxes to train schedules, color codes and pickup time for every lunchbox.
- Flat organizational structure: Dabbawalas is 125 year old organization. It has a flat organizational structure with only 3 levels – the executive management team, the regional supervisors, and the delivery team. The organization is democratic in nature. Each Dabbawala (whether a novice or someone with 20 years of experience) has equal stake, status, pay and say in the operations. To buy an equal stake, a new Dabbawala invests in 2 bicycles, one wooden crate to carry Dabbas and one Gandhi cap!
- Community values and strong sense of belonging: All things aside, the biggest thing that differentiates the Dabbawalas is their strong sense of belonging to the community and their unparalleled dedication to give back to Mumbai city. Each Dabbawala earns as little as $100 every month. But they toil hard day after day – fighting Mumbai rains, bad roads, hot summers and notorious traffic!
Dabbawalas embody the spirit of resilience that Mumbai city is known for. Their dedication is exemplified by the fact that they decided to deliver lunchboxes on the very next day of the horrendous 26 Nov 2008 terrorist attack – spreading hope and exhibiting resilience!
But how good can the Dabbawalas’ operations really be?
With world-class cars and reckless drivers, the Top Gear team decided to challenge Mumbai’s low-tech Dabbawala’s on bicycles. Watch the video below to find out who wins!
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