Saturday, December 22, 2007

The lunch carrier in Bombay - a lesson in management

Dabbawalas, (a person who carries lunch) in Bombay, India is a group of people carrying and delivering freshly made food from home in lunch boxes to office workers. Though the work sounds simple, it is actually a highly specialized trade that is over a century old and which has become integral to Bombay’s culture.

I have personally used this service while I used to live in Bombay several years ago. It may be a bit hard for folks to understand why it is “unique”, but once you understand the challenges of the daily office going worker (and the chaos in the trains) – you will appreciate this.

The dabbawala originated when India was under British rule: many British people who came to the colony didn't like the local food, so a service was set up to bring lunch to these people in their workplace straight from their home. Nowadays, Indian office-goers are the main customers for the dabbawalas.

At about 20,000 people per square kilometer, Bombay is India's most densely populated city with a huge flow of traffic. Because of this, lengthy commutes to workplaces are common, with many workers traveling by train. Riding in a local train is nothing short of an adventure. About 6 million people use the trains daily. Forget getting a seat – one would consider it lucky even if one has space to hang out of a moving train. The main mode of transport for the Dabbawala is the train. They have to maneuver the crowd every day – twice – once to deliver the food to the office, and then to return the container back to home.

See this link to get a glimpse of travel in a train in Bombay

They carry lunch in a cylindrical aluminum container. Instead of going home for lunch or paying for a meal in a café, many office workers have a cooked meal sent from home - essentially delivering the meal in lunch boxes and then having the lunch boxes collected and re-sent the next day. This is done for a small monthly fee. The meal is cooked in the morning and sent in lunch boxes carried by dabbawalas, who have a complex association and hierarchy across the city.

A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects containers from homes. The containers have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a color or symbol (most dabbawalas are illiterate).

The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort (and sometimes bundle) the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box (usually there is a designated car for the boxes). The markings include the rail station to unload the boxes and the building address where the box has to be delivered.

At each railway station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes, after lunch, are again collected and sent back to the respective houses.

More than 175,000-200,000 lunches get moved every day by an estimated 4,500-5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. Forbes magazine gave a Six Sigma performance rating for the precision of dabbawalas (one mistake per 8 million deliveries).

The BBC has produced a documentary on Dabbawalas, and Prince Charles, during his visit to India, visited them (he had to fit in with their schedule, since their timing was too precise to permit any flexibility). Owing to the tremendous publicity, some of the dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in top business schools of India, which is very unusual. Most remarkably, the success of the dabbawala trade has involved no modern technology.

The service is uninterrupted even on the days of extreme weather, such as Bombay’s characteristic monsoons. The local dabbawalas at the receiving and the sending ends are known to the customers personally, so that there is no question of lack of trust. Also, they are well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, which allows them to access any destination with ease. In fact, I recall an incident – when I reached office around 1 pm – due to traffic challenges caused by incessant rains – and was surprised to see my lunch container sitting on my table (it reached at the usual time of 11:30 am).

The secret to their success is lies in collaboration between team members with a high level of technical efficiency in logistics management. They follow some simple concepts effectively.

· Consistency - Whatever the food, it must all go within the standard container. No exceptions allowed. This helps them streamline their process in terms of delivery and handoff

· They adhere to low-cost (their charges are extremely low), excellent response-time (always punctual) and predictable quality (the food is not messed up). They DO NOT try customization/variety (meaning offering the flexibility to send items that do not fit in the container, temperature sensitive, etc)

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