Picture by Meena Kadri
Most fascinating about the dabbawallas, which is sometimes written as ‘Tiffin Wallahs’, is the eating culture behind it. As a Calvinist Dutchman I must ask myself the question: “Why not take your lunch with you in a plastic box every morning, like we do?” But the men in Mumbai don’t like the gooey sandwiches that have been interchanging flavor with a banana in the same box for some hours. Americans would think: “Why not have lunch in a lunchroom? Hamburgers and French fries should be available on each corner of the street in the innercities of India.” But we all don’t catch the point here — this is a culture of pure love. Love for food and love for family. The Indian husband wants to eat the food made by his feminine counter part, who understands, as no-one else does, what he likes for lunch. Sometimes a little message to communicate between home and work is put in the dabbas, although this tradition is being replaced by text-messaging.
Over the past 125 years, the dabbawallas have set up a distribution system that’s famous for its incredible punctuality and reliability. Worldwide, dabbawallas are known as a hard working and low-key, but amazingly well-organized system. Therefore the dabbawallas are an interesting research object for management, logistics and distribution businesses. Recently an analysis of Forbes found out that the dabbawallas have a punctuality of 99.999999 %, which means one delay in six million deliveries. These figures are impressive, considering the fact that the dabbawallas have to pick up and deliver 200,000 lunch boxes within only a couple of hours, in a city full of congestion. The dabbawallas definitely beat new technical solutions like expensive chain-supply managed software.
To the contrary, they don’t use any technical devices to support their service. Bikes and trains are used to transport and deliver the collected dabbas. Here’s how the system works:
On his blog Seth Godin wondered why this system works so well. His answer is that each dabbawalla knows his clients. The distribution system won’t work when the dabbawallas were shuffled for reorganization purposes. I think Godin is right. Furthermore, the dabbawallas are a cooperation, which means that everyone is responsible for the final result. This makes the chain (which is usually as strong as its weakest link) pretty solid. Since the dabbawallas are getting famous for their service, one can join them to experience the touch work they do. Prince Charles had the opportunity to do so. However, because the dabbawalla schedule is immensely tight, there was hardly time for a royal conversation, and poor Charles had to run along with the fast delivery men.