Before I proceed with People Management Lessons that we can learn from them, let me explain the complexity of the system that these Dabbawala’s work in and which makes their work so special. Suppose there are FIVE pick-up and delivery railway stations – A, B, C, D and E. All these FIVE stations are connected by a local train. Train covers distance between each station in 10-15 minutes. There are 10 Dabbawala’s who manage collection and delivery of tiffin’s at each station. Each Dabbawala collects 30-40 lunchboxes and brings them to the station. Each Dabbawala carries tiffin’s that needs to be delivered in the region of each of this railway station, viz. A, B, C, D, and E. Let’s start from station A. All 10 Dabbawala’s picked lunchboxes from their designated areas and brought them to the station A. At station, they will do first level of sorting, and classify lunchboxes into FIVE segments A, B, C, D, and E. Same type of sorting is done at every station. These lunchboxes are then carried in the luggage compartment of local train. Once the train reaches station B, those lunchboxes that needs to be delivered at station B are pulled down and new lunchboxes are pulled into the luggage compartment and second level of sorting is done before the train reaches next station. The process of sorting and re-sorting continues till the train reaches final destination. Once the train reaches final destination, sorting is done on the basis of delivery address regions. From there onwards, designated Dabbawala carries lunchboxes in carters; take over his head or on bicycle and deliver lunchboxes to concerned customers. After lunchtime, the same process repeats in reverse order and lunchboxes are returned to families of customers. In a day, on an average, each lunchbox passes through the hands of 5-6 Dabbawalas and yet reaches its destination accurately and on time.
Lesson #1 Time Management – Mumbai Dabbawala’s are classic example of time-management. While preparing their schedule they take into account every external factor, such as, weather, traffic jams, train delays, etc. So, whether the local train is on time or not, whether it is hot summer or raining, they don’t make an excuse, they deliver lunchboxes to their customers on time. Once in a month they conduct “grievance resolution meeting” and this meeting is done after office hours at 6 PM. These Dabbawala’s do not let their personal grievances affect their work.
Lesson #2 Self-Discipline – Mumbai Dabbawala’s is a classic lot of self-disciplined people. Unlike organized corporate world, they do not have written policies, however, they have few unwritten rules which they follow diligently. If they are sick or want to take a leave off the following day, they inform their team-leader well in advance. Their Team-leader doesn’t need to search for them. They wear a white colour cap, uniquely designed for them as their identity. They are not allowed to report to work in a drunken state.
Lesson #3 Visibility -The beauty of the Dabbawala-based system is that all of the Dabbawala’s understand exactly what is happening and when — to the minute. If certain deadlines and hand-offs are missed, people don’t eat. It’s as simple as that. Everyone within the chain understands what he needs to do, where he needs to be positioned and what must be done for the chain to be successful.
Lesson #4 Ownership – Every Dabbawala takes ownership of his work. Sometimes the colour coding on lunchboxes fades away with time. Any Dabbawala, who notices faded colour code, repaints the code without being told to do so. For them faded colour code is not an excuse to deliver the lunchbox at the wrong address. They don’t think that any work in the supply-chain doesn’t belong to them. They take complete ownership of their work. Hiring is done through the reference of Dabbawala ONLY. It is the duty of referring Dabbawala to make sure that his reference works as per ethics and values of the group. In case the reference fails to deliver as per norms, that Dabbawala gets barred from referring any new reference for rest of his life.
Lesson #5Approach of Trustworthiness – Dabbawala’s do not open lunchboxes to see what is in it. They only pick the lunchboxes from the houses and deliver to customers at a workplace. However, sometimes if a client forgets to carry his mobile or chequebook or glasses, his family members put those things in one the boxes of lunchbox 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.
Lesson #6 Keep the Process Plain and Simple - One of the key lessons 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 don’t add extraneous value. They simply understand what their customers want, and they focus 100 percent of their time and energy on meeting that need. 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 need is? That is always a good place to start.
Lesson #7 Customer Focus – In spite of adequate planning, sometimes these Dabbawala’s encounter a situation which is beyond their control, such as accident, sudden illness, and emergency at home. In such scenario, the concerned Dabbawala is relieved, and his work is completed by other colleagues. No matter what happens to Dabbawala, his customers get their lunchboxes on time. Accidents, falling sick, emergency at home, etc. are not excuses for them to fail in their work.
Lesson #8Technologies is just a facilitator– In recent times, Dabbawala’s have begun to use Web Technology and SMS services to book orders, however, and they are not overly relied on computers or social media. They believe that issues related to accuracy and consistency has more to do with the process, execution, and expectations.
Their work has earned them ISO 9001 Certification and Six Sigma Certification, though they never applied for any of it. They have several records registered in Guinness Books of Records. Several imminent institutes, such as Harvard Business School, Indian Institutes of Management have studied their models and prepared case studies for their Management Students. Charles, Prince of Wales, Richard Branson has visited the place of work of these Dabbawalas. In fact, Richard Branson travelled with them to deliver lunchbox to one of his employees in Mumbai.
It is said that this model of Dabbawala’s cannot be replicated elsewhere, due to the infrastructure of Mumbai. The ethos and values of the community involved in this business make it 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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Sanjeev Himachali is a Strategic HR Consultant, Talent Strategist, Management Consultant and a Performance Coach. He exhibits over a decade and a half years of progressive, leadership experience and core competencies in talent acquisition, management, and development, HR program management, compensation & benefits management, and staff engagements.