How Mumbai’s semi-literate dabbawalas have set up unmatched service levels
Ordinary beings can often do extraordinary things and set example for management bosses and dons without holding fancy qualifications or undertaking expensive business training programmes. I am going to talk about a group of people, many of them semi-literate, which has set up global benchmarks in the service industry. They consider their customer to be God. With such customer-centricity, they can only excel.
I am talking about the dabbawalas (tiffin carriers) of Mumbai whose virtually flawless service has become a case study in top B-schools like Harvard. Unlike popular perception, dabbawalas are not caterers. In ultra-busy Mumbai, the world’s fourth most populous city, it is the dabbawalas who keep lakhs of office-goers well fed daily.
Commuting in congested Mumbai is an ordeal. Local trains form the life-line of local transport. But they stop for just for 60 seconds at major stations and for 40 seconds at smaller ones. The typical Mumbaikar has to leave home for office by 7 to 7.30 a.m., reach the nearest local railway station and then fight his way into a jam-packed train compartment. The commuter often misses a train or two before being able to squeeze his way into one.
This being the routine, the commuter is not able to carry fresh food from home so early in the morning. Moreover, it is almost impossible for him/her to carry the tiffin box in the overcrowded compartment. Thus arises the need for someone to pick up the tiffin with fresh warm food from the office-goer’s home and deliver it to his/her office by lunchtime. The empty tiffin has to be returned to the customer’s house by the evening.
The dabbawalas provide this valuable service day in and day out enabling office-goers to get hygienic home food of their taste.
Let me present some statistics to explain the process: Firstly, dabbawalas are not caterers. The steel or aluminium tiffin box and its food contents belong to the customer. In Mumbai, dabbawalas deliver your food from your home to your workplace before lunchtime. Once lunch is over, they deliver your empty tiffin back to your home the same day. That means they make two deliveries a day.
The dabbawala system was started in Mumbai by Shri Mahadev Havaji Bachche in 1890 with about a 100 men. As the business grew, a charitable body by the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust was registered in 1956. The trust turned commercial in 1968 under the registered name Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association.
The Association’s current employee strength stands at 5000. The average literacy rate of the employees is 8th grade. Number of tiffins/customers is 2 lakh. Thus, including the returns of the tiffin, 4 lakh service transactions happen every day. So the annual transactions reach a figure of 12 crore (4000000 X 25 days X 12 months = 120,000,000).
Each employee covers 60-70 kms daily. He carries usually 40 tiffin boxes weighing 60-65 kg. Time taken for the entire exercise is 8 to 9 hours. But the morning three hours – 9 am to 12 noon – are like wartime.
You would be surprised to learn that not once in their history of 129 years, have the dabbawalas failed to deliver the tiffin in time even if the local trains are later or it is raining cats and dogs as it often does in Mumbai. Riots, public rallies and even terrorist attacks have not been able to delay the dabba dare devils. Such is their commitment to customer service. They may have not heard of Six Sigma but they are its best practitioners. No wonder, the error rate is one in 16 million transactions. That translates into a Six Sigma rating of 99.99999.
Also, in this long period they have gone on strike just for one day and that too not for their demands but in support of the agitation launched by revered anti-corruption leader Anna Hazare.
Each group of 30-40 dabbawalas has a group leader called mukadam. He is usually the eldest in the group. Though this position does not get him even an extra rupee, it’s a matter of honour and prestige. He and also the other group members keep the names, addresses and phone numbers of the customers in the mind. No computers or laptops for them. Their passion for their vocation makes them extra efficient and vigilant.
The monthly fee charged by the dabbawalas is also very reasonable: Rs 1000 – Rs 1500 depending upon the distance to be covered. Diwali bonus is one month’s extra payment. But the service is not discontinued if the customer refuses to pay the bonus. The logic is simple. Why miss 12 months’ salary for one month’s bonus. This is how customers are retained.
However, we all know that schools and school buses charge for the entire year though schools remain closed for holidays for months.
But dabbawalas believe in maintaining unbreakable ties with their customers so much so that they won’t charge a customer for the period he goes to his native town or elsewhere for months. That is how the dabbawala-customer relationship lasts for decades, almost till the customer retires from his job and stops going to office.
It is this work ethos and passion for service that has prompted management gurus and teachers from the world over to study the dabbawalas work. Professor Stefan Thomke, the William Barclay Harding Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and a leading authority on the management of business experimentation and innovation, spent considerable time in Mumbai to understand and study the operation and inner working, best practices and processes of the dabbawalas. The professor has worked with many global companies on product, process, and technology development.
It is not sheer incidence that the dabbawalas attracted worldwide attention and visits by Prince Charles, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, and employees of Federal Express, a company renowned for its own mastery of logistics. The Prince had even invited the dabbawalas to his marriage with Camilla in the year 2005.
Coming back to the good professor’s findings, let me provide a summary for the benefit of young business managers. “The dabbawalas’ success is proof that with the right system in place, ordinary workers can achieve extraordinary results,” Prof Thomke stated in his article in HBR.
“The dabbawalas have an overall system whose basic pillars — organization, management, process, and culture — are perfectly aligned and mutually reinforcing. In the corporate world, it’s uncommon for managers to strive for that kind of synergy. 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 recognise that they should nurture their organisations as communities—not just because they care about employees but because doing so will maximise productivity and creativity and reduce risk. The takeaway: managers shouldn’t think of themselves merely as leaders or supervisors; they also need to be architects who design and fine-tune systems that enable employees to perform at optimal levels,” the professor put things in a nutshell.
It would be worthwhile for managers to get in-depth information about the dabbawalas’ four pillars of strength and excellence and emulate it in their respective businesses.
Basant Chaudhary is a Poet, Writer, The Chairman of BLC and Basant Chaudhary Foundation. (firstname.lastname@example.org)