Mumbai Dabbawala Management Class

Mumbai Dabbawala as they are commonly known were invited to my office yesterday for a presentation and I got a chance to attend one of the best management lessons. It was a unique experience and the key learning was education is not decided by degrees. It was a presentation that could match the standards of any management guru and personally I liked his presentation better than noted management guru Prahalad Kakkad’s.

Before I begin to tell about presentation, I  would like to give an overview about Mumbai Dabbawala  to those who don’t know about them. It’s a team of around 5000 people who carry lunch boxes from people’s homes and serve them in their office. Sounds very simple but it’s one of the most appreciated business for it’s excellent management skills, accuracy and reliable service. They have a six sigma certificate and ISO certification which companies strive to get. The most astonishing element is that 85 % of people in team are illiterate and rest of the 15 % are also not degree holders.

He started with a video that showed the overall working of Dabbawalas, how they operate, their network, their values and every details about them. Then he started with the presentation. His way of presenting was extremely witty and some very good one liners were used.

Some of the key things I learnt about the Dabbawalas were ;

  • They carry 2 lacs lunch boxes every day to all corners of Mumbai with an accuracy of 99.99 %. This means 1 out of 1 million services has a chance of going wrong.
  • The average age of working people is 50 years and their work involves lifting weights of around 50-60 kg overhead.
  • Every person is a share holder and gets equal salary irrespective of the distance traveled, age or amount of work.
  • Dependency on technology is minimum. They travel through local trains and bicycles. They don’t have offices and thus capital involved is minimum
  • A color coding is used to identify the destination that is written on top of the lunch box. A lunch box may be carried over by more than 6 people to make it reach to correct destination.
  • Sorting of lunch boxes is done online that is on the road, in local trains etc and this happens multiple times without any mistakes.
  • Mumbai housewives fear more to Dabbawalas than their husbands. Reason being they have to keep the lunch box ready at the specified time and a delay more than 10 seconds is not tolerated. Repeated mistake for 4-5 days may lead to termination of service.
  • The cost of service is very less as low as Rs. 300 per month.
  • This business is continuing from last 119 years successfully without any strike.

It was a pleasant surprise to listen him talk about industry terms like process, domain, growth etc. He was not only using these terms but he had in depth understanding of all these things. After all he had given presentation in IIMs and other business schools.

After explaining about their way of working he gave the practices followed in their business. The things that kept them successful for these many years and still continuing. Some of them are listed below :

  • Keep every thing simple. It’s applicable particularly in their business where not many are literate even. The process followed should be as simple as possible.
  • Every one is share holder and that gives them a sense of responsibility.
  • Customers are the most important. He gave an example when Prince Charles wanted to meet them, the time and venue of meeting was decided by Dabbawalas so that customer service is not affected.
  • If you want to start a business, use existing infrastructure to minimize capital invested.
  • Find proper people for work. Even if the person is under qualified, it’s fine. An under qualified person is more motivated than over qualified person. This is not applicable everywhere but works at most places specially in their business.
  • Have people work for longer duration at one places to make relationships with clients.

There was lot more to learn. The best part was it was learning but more fun. In the end we were introduced to a person who worked as Dabbawala for 8 years and now working with  a leading IT firm with same dedication. Commitment to work pays off, atleast Dabbawalas display that.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by rahul on December 14, 2009 at 7:14 am

    goes to show not much is gained from formal education


  2. Very well written buddy, As per I thought this is your one of the best article you have written up till now. What i liked about this story is it’s content.


  3. Posted by Amol on December 18, 2009 at 8:55 am

    I have actually seen them working. Though I could not get to ask them the details. maybe one day I’ll try that.
    Nice article though…and interesting one… usual by Mak 🙂


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