Thomke and Mona Sinha. Describes the Mumbai-based Dabbawala organization, which achieves very high service performance 6 Sigma equivalent or better with a low-cost and very simple operating system. The case explores all aspects of their system mission, information management, material flows, human resource system, processes, etc. An outside consultant proposes the introduction of new technologies and management systems, while the leading logistics companies e. Thomke, Stefan H.

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Think you need exceptional employees, advanced IT, or rigid controls to build a high-performance organization? The dabbawalas of Mumbai prove otherwise. The year-old service is legendary for its reliability: Despite monsoons, floods, riots, and terrorist attacks, mistakes by the dabbawalas are extremely rare. Thomke, an HBS professor, studied the dabbawalas to find the keys to their success. He uncovered a unique system with four pillars: organization, management, process, and culture.

A flat structure, consisting of autonomous units of 25 people each, is well suited to providing low-cost service. Buffer capacity is built in to address extremely thin margins of error; each unit has extra workers who fill in wherever they are needed, and members are cross-trained in all activities.

Variations that might derail the works are discouraged; the lunchboxes used, for instance, are all a standard size. A simple coding system helps workers quickly sort lunches and get them where they need to go. And democratic decision making and deep emotional bonds among workers promote a high degree of cooperation. The dabbawalas show that with the right system, even ordinary workers can achieve the extraordinary. In July , Mumbai was battered by unusually heavy monsoon rains.

That, combined with record high tides, wreaked widespread havoc, bringing the city to a virtual standstill. As the water rose waist-high in many areas, people found themselves stranded at railway stations, in trains, and on roads and sidewalks. Nevertheless, on the second day of the flooding, even before the city had limped back to life, the dabbawalas were back on the job, wading through the water. They quickly became a symbol of gritty resilience.

The 5, or so dabbawalas in the city have an astounding service record. That entails conducting upwards of , transactions in six hours each day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year minus holidays , but mistakes are extremely rare. Amazingly, the dabbawalas—semiliterate workers who largely manage themselves—have achieved that level of performance at very low cost, in an ecofriendly way, without the use of any IT system or even cell phones. The dabbawala service is legendary for its reliability.

Since it was founded, in , it has endured famines, wars, monsoons, Hindu-Muslim riots, and a series of terrorist attacks. It has attracted worldwide attention and visits by Prince Charles, Richard Branson, and employees of Federal Express, a company renowned for its own mastery of logistics. How can a poorly educated, decentralized workforce perform so beautifully in an environment that can charitably be described as unpredictable and challenging?

The answers hold lessons not only for companies seeking to expand in emerging markets but also for all developed-economy enterprises whose ranks are dominated by unexceptional talent. Even firms that can afford to hire stars typically depend on a cast of average people to support them. After hearing about the dabbawalas, I traveled to Mumbai to uncover what they might teach us about managing a superior service organization.

I analyzed their operation and its inner workings. The dabbawalas have an overall system whose basic pillars—organization, management, process, and culture—are perfectly aligned and mutually reinforcing. While most, if not all, pay attention to some of the pillars, only a minority address all four. Culture, for example, often gets short shrift: Too few managers seem to recognize that they should nurture their organizations as communities—not just because they care about employees but because doing so will maximize productivity and creativity and reduce risk.

It is partly the railway system that creates demand in the first place. So office employees have their lunches prepared at home and delivered by the dabbawalas after the morning rush hour.

On any given day, a dabba changes hands several times. It is then taken by train to the station closest to its destination. There it is sorted again and assigned to another worker, who delivers it to the right office before lunchtime. To perform their work most efficiently, the dabbawalas have organized themselves into roughly units of about 25 people each.

These small groups have local autonomy. Such a flat organizational structure is perfectly suited to providing a low-cost delivery service. There are other delivery services that charge more and cater to local groups, but as far as I know, the dabbawalas have no significant rivals at their price point and scale. Even though the service has been in business for more than a hundred years, no one has been able to replicate it.

The railway system sets the pace and rhythm of work. The daily schedule determines when certain tasks need to be done and the amount of time allowed for each.

For instance, workers have 40 seconds to load the crates of dabbas onto a train at major stations and just 20 seconds at interim stops. Workers have 40 seconds to load the crates of dabbas onto a train at major stations and just 20 seconds at interim stops. The tight schedule helps synchronize everyone and imposes discipline in an environment that might otherwise be chaotic.

In addition, it provides clear feedback when performance slips. If a worker is late dropping off his dabbas at a station, his delinquency is immediately obvious to everyone, and alternative arrangements then have to be made for transporting his dabbas on another train. Many service businesses lack a built-in mechanism like a railway. But they can adopt a system that confers similar benefits.

For example, many product development teams set up a schedule in which they cycle repeatedly through the design-build-test process, rather than doing each step once and waiting until late in the game to perform testing. This allows them to get quick feedback on work and find problems early. A comparable mechanism in manufacturing is takt time, which involves matching the rate of demand with the rate of production to synchronize the entire operation. A takt time of one minute means that a widget is produced every minute because there is demand for one widget a minute.

This rhythm drives everything and exposes deviations from the norm. The dabbawalas essentially manage themselves with respect to hiring, logistics, customer acquisition and retention, and conflict resolution. This helps them operate efficiently and keep costs low and the quality of service high. Each dabbawala is an entrepreneur who is responsible for negotiating prices with his own customers.

Because dabbawalas own their relationships with customers and tend to work in the same location for years, those relationships are generally long-term, trusting ones. The dabbawalas take advantage of their more-relaxed afternoon schedule to interact with customers to share information about upcoming changes, collect monthly fees, and discuss any issues.

New hires are trained on the job by the group. They learn to assist in all activities. After a probation period of six months, they can buy into the business with a sum equal to 10 times their expected monthly income. Workers with more than 10 years of experience serve as supervisors, or muqaddams. Every group has one or more muqaddams, who supervise the coding, sorting, and loading and unloading of dabbas and are responsible for resolving disputes, overseeing collections, and troubleshooting.

They also pick up and deliver dabbas themselves. Members elect representatives from among the muqaddams to serve on two managing committees that meet monthly to tackle operational and organizational issues as well as problems that cannot be resolved at the local level. For the dabbawalas, having the right process in place means more than simply implementing efficient work flows.

It also entails just about everything in the organization, including the way information is managed, the use of built-in buffers, and a strict adherence to standards. To convey information, the dabbawalas rely on a system of very basic symbols. The lid of a dabba has three key markings on it. The second is a group of characters on the edge of the lid: a number for the dabbawala who will make the delivery, an alphabetical code two or three letters for the office building, and a number indicating the floor.

The third—a combination of color and shape, and in some instances, a motif—indicates the station of origin. Number for the district the dabba is going to: Ballard Estate. Mark showing the originating station: Kurla. Code of the dabbawala at the destination station who will make the delivery. Code for the destination: Sant Building. First floor The name of the customer may also be included here if multiple deliveries go to the same floor Source: Company Interviews.

This insight is applicable in many other contexts. People operate in a visual world. Whether you run an airline, hotels, or a university, how and what information is conveyed can make a huge difference. Less is often more because it can reduce confusion. Recognizing this, Delta Air Lines recently redesigned its boarding passes to make them less cluttered and to highlight key information such as the destination city.

The simple coding system is crucial given the extremely tight tolerances of airline operations. Even with an efficient coding system, workers still have a tiny margin of error for certain tasks. The allotted time for picking up a dabba at a house, for example, might be only 30 to 60 seconds, and any number of small delays could easily have a cascading effect that slowed thousands of deliveries.

So, to stay on schedule, each group has two or three extra workers who fill in wherever they are needed, and all members are cross-trained in different activities: collecting, sorting, transporting, finance, and customer relations.

Marriott Hotels takes a similar approach. The company claims that such cross-training enabled its Cancun hotel to return to business quickly after Hurricane Wilma swept through the region in Many manufacturers, of course, rely on such built-in buffers, too. At Toyota, the group and team leaders are also reserve workers, ready to fill in quickly for any task or function.

They need just enough extra capacity to handle problems and emergencies but not so much that it bogs down the operation and becomes wasteful overhead. This minimizes variations that might throw a wrench into the works.

The dabbas, for instance, are all roughly the same size and cylindrical shape. To encourage customers to conform, containers incur an additional fee when, say, they are so large that they require special handling. Unusual containers that interfere with the delivery operation are simply not accepted.

This uniformity allows the dabbas to be packed quickly onto crates, which are also a standard size so that they can be efficiently loaded onto trains. The dabbawalas strictly observe certain rules. Workers are fined or fired for repeated mistakes and negligence. Customers are also expected to abide by the process.


The Story of Mumbai Dabbawalas

Jump to navigation. Mumbai Dabbawalas lunchbox deliverymen have been taking lunch on time every single day to the office goers since past years, crossing the steep natural climatic condition in the city, which is usually monsoon or scorching heat. It is only due to their diligence, time management and dedication that they have been able to achieve this feat. The accuracy and professionalism of the Dabbawalas' has compelled renowned institutes both in the country and outside to call them to deliver lectures on management. Mumbai Dabbawalas: Case study for management students Mumbai Dabbawalas lunchbox deliverymen have been taking lunch on time every single day to the office goers since past years, crossing the steep natural climatic condition in the city, which is usually monsoon or scorching heat.


The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time

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Mumbai Dabbawalas: Case study for management students

The dabbawalas also spelled dabbawallas or dabbawallahs , called tiffin wallahs in older sources constitute a lunchbox delivery and return system that delivers hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work in India , especially in Mumbai. The lunchboxes are picked up in the late morning, delivered predominantly using bicycles and railway trains , and returned empty in the afternoon. They are also used by meal suppliers in Mumbai, who pay them to ferry lunchboxes with ready-cooked meals from central kitchens to customers and back. In Bombay, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service with about a hundred men.

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