What’s in the Dabba?

We all got assembled in the Sindhi Community hall for the much hyped Session on Mumbai Dabbawalas. Mr. Manish Tripati entered the scene with the Tiffin Dabba showing it to the audience as some Trophy.  There was some concern regarding the sound system while the introduction was being delivered. But he was loud enough to be audible.
He asked why we have assembled here?  To see what’s in the Dabba. Is it not?
Mr Tripathi was from the Mumbai Dabbawala Association famous for delivering  Afternoon lunch boxes from home to offices. He was here to lecture on the intricacies of their operation and how their principles and practices can be applied to our businesses.

The Mumbai Dabbawala

Now This whole Dabbawala service started because some person loved his wife! Do you believe it? we see many  businesses starting because love exhausted between wife and husband.  But this one, Lets check.
That was the time when Bombay was growing and new government offices were coming up. A Parsi banker who was working in one of the offices loved his wife. So he wanted  to love her even in the office, so he hired a person who could deliver the lunch,  off course prepared by his wife, from home to office. Now here’s the opportunity.   Those office going men who loved their wives increased.That’s how started the Dabbawala service is 1890.
Started with 35 people by Mahadu Havaji Bache, now it is an organization with 5000 workers serving over 2 lakh costumers.

Some of the traits and facts of Dabbawalas and their Organization.

  1. The whole Dabbawala thing started due to sheer need of the people (  love for  their wives, voluntary or cumpulsive)
  2. They are puntual. Feel work is worship.
  3. They use no fuel. Use bicycles and local trains as  mode of transport.
  4. Wear white Gandhi cap while at work and no boozing while at work.
  5. 85% of them are illiterate. (always thumbs up)
  6. No HR department. That’s the reason why they are so successful!
  7. All belong to one Varkari Sect (Maratha community) previously in Shivaji Maharaj’s Army.
  8. They collect a meager 250-300 per month for the services irrespective of how far they have to carry wife’s love.
  9. Earn 4000 to 5000 a month.
  10. A worker is penalized for reporting late to work or not wearing Gandhi Topi.
  11. There are groups of 20-25 people headed by a leader. They share the profits among themselves. That is their income!
  12. They are Zero% fuel, Zero% Technology and Zero% investment company.
  13. They give housewives or house husbands  5 seconds to handing over the Dabba. After  5 late hand overs, service is terminated. Thus housewives fear the Dabbawalas more than their husbands.

Their high profile visitors include Prince Charles ( Prince, waiting to become king!) , Richard Benson of Virgin Airlines, US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke,  Mandira Bedi.

Prince Charles with Mumbai Dabbawalas
Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson with the Dabba


Gary Locke with Dabbawala, Courtesy: The Hindu

They are famous for their on-time delivery with almost no errors. They are certified by ISO 9001 and rated with 6 Sigma for less than 1 error in 6 million deliveries made. This has brought them into limelight and a subject of study for many a management students. How are they able to do it?

  1. They are carrying wife’s love to husbands!
  2. Everyone is a share holder in the company. All the members work. No Work No Pay!
  3. They have a very fool proof coding system for identifying the pickup and destination of the Dabbas.

    The Coding system

  4. 85% of the members are illiterate! Thus best suited for the job.
  5. No HR
  6. There are single DNA company, all the workers are Marthi speaking and  from Varkari Sect.
  7. Differences, if any, are sorted out in the frequent meetings.

This  consistent success of beating all odds to satisfy the customer is unmatched and worth to stop and and notice.

Let’s see what are the management learning and  if we can apply their principles and practices to the present day IT and other companies.

  1. KEEP OPERATIONAL COSTS TO MINIMUM: The Dabbawalas use cycles and handcarts. They  have no posh offices
    Now this we can do by plying the employees in buses and encouraging them to use public transportation.
  2. MINIMUM CAPITAL INVESTMENT: Now this is difficult, with the companies need to boast surplus capital or skilled workers to get new projects and expansion.
  3. SERVE ONLY THE CUSTOMERS – NOT THE MANAGER: Present day Organizations should do something to make the employees identify with the goals of the organization. One important thing in this is transparency in appraisals.
  4. COMPLEXITY OPPOSES COMPLIANCE: The procedures have to be kept simple. Employees don’t follow rules which are not practical. This depends on the commitment of the employees and managers.  Build foolproof procedures which can be followed by all.  The effect of  human elements like emotions, mental status, physical health should be minimal on the work. This does not mean automation, but we need to have  simple procedures, so that it is easy to follow in all conditions.
  5. NEVER DEVIATE FROM YOUR CORE COMPETENCY: Dabbawalas trying to market FMCG failed. If ever we need to diversify and expand our operations, divide the operations so that management becomes simple. For instance the Tatas: Tata motors, Tata Power, Tata Tea etc.,

  6. DO NOT BE OVERDEPENDENT ON TECHNOLOGY: Some companies have been wiped out with the data losses. Contingency plans and data backup should be in place in case of calamities.

  7. FLAT ORGANIZATION: Everyone should work and everyone should be a manager. This brings a sense of responsibility in the employees. Don’t know how far this can be applied in a profit motive businesses.
  8. CO-OPERATION BETWEEN THE EMPLOYEES: This is crucial  as competition among employees can be destructive. Bonding helps.
  9. KEEP EXTRAS FOR FAULT TOLERANCE: Extra resources should be kept in case of any emergency so that the work will not be effected and other resources are not overstretched.
  10. COMMITMENT MATTERS NOT QUALIFICATION: Its crucial that we find the right people for the job. commitment to do the job precedes the qualification.

  11. BUILD AROUND THE EXISTING INFRASTRUCTURE: Use the existing resource rather bringing in new.
  12. ABANDON THE BAD CUSTOMERS: Bad customers , how reputed they may be should be parted with. This effects the other customers.
  13. PENALIZE EMPLOYEES FOR NON-COMPLIANCE: Same rules for all. This will bring uniformity among the operations and shows the seriousness of the organization towards its goals.
  14. HIGH SALARY ALONE CANNOT RETAIN EMPLOYEES: The employees need to be emotionally united and need respect, ownership and no fear factor.
  15. BE HUMBLE: Never boast off too much , the customers may be affected.
  16. EMPLOYEES TO BE SHAREHOLDERS: This is very difficult to be applied in all the organizations. At least performance based incentives should be given to the employees.

With all the companies battling the deadlines and quality issues, its crucial to put up a system in place which is practical and employees can become part of it despite different cultural and geographical backgrounds.

CERTIFICATIONS: Certifications like ISO 9001, 2000 and 6-Sigma  are given for the operational compliance of the company’s policies and quality maintenance. The prime focus should not be for getting this certificate. They happen once we have a good system in place. If a person or organization gets 6-Sigma certified for a particular project, it implies that person or organization maintains the same level of competence and commitment in all other operations. Just doing a project for the certification won’t help. Boasting something which can’t me achieved will only damage the organization.

Hope you enjoyed reading this. Your comments  are most welcome…


5 thoughts on “What’s in the Dabba?

  1. Karthee… i loved these statements: No HR department. That’s the reason why they are so successful!

    This whole Dabbawala service started because some person loved his wife! Do you believe it? we see many businesses starting because love exhausted between wife and husband. But this one, Lets check.

    Nice to see ur post What’s in the Dabba?

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