Mumbai Dabbawala: Customer Service Excellence of Six Sigma QualityWithout Technology

20th Mar 2012
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Dr. Pawan Agrawal has taken Mumbai’s semi-literate dabbawalas, suburban trains, and packed home food (tiffins) to a global case study on Six Sigma. He is the author of ‘Dabbawala of Mumbai : Masters of Supply Chain Management’. He has done a case study on the dabbawala’s logistics and supply chain management efforts and has made more than 200 presentations in India and abroad.

YourStory captures parts of his speech at IIT-Delhi at the E-Summit, 2012. An adapted version of the speech is presented here.

The food is cooked at home. Tiffin is yours. They [dabbawalas] will simply deliver it from your home to your workplace before lunch time and deliver the empty tiffin box back in the evening at your home as well. Why would you want dabbawala to carry your tiffin? There are two reasons. One is that the Mumbai local trains have lines extending 60-70 km and two, they are crowded. If you have to reach office at 9, you must start at 6. But you wouldn’t want to wake your loved ones at 5 and have them prepare the tiffin for you; that’s where Dabbawala can help you. Another reason is that even if you start at 8, you won’t be able to carry your own tiffin because of how crowded the trains are. So, for these two reasons, Dabbawala has been in the business [of carrying your home food to your office] for the last 120 years. Some 9-10 months back, some corporate people sent me an email. What are the takeaways from your session? I said, “What takeaways yaar, I’ll give away whatever you want to take away.” Then I decided, yes, my takeaways are passion, commitment, consistency, 100% execution, accuracy, dedication, time management and customer satisfaction. These qualities are there in every dabbawala, in all 5000 of them. These are in-built qualities that everybody can have. I don’t think the IITs and IIMs can teach these things. I think entrepreneurs must possess these qualities. The belief is that customer may be King but he is also God. There is no alternative to hardwork and importance of human values. If these principles are followed, you will be unbeatable.

There’s a group of people called Varkari Sampradaya in Maharashtra; they are the devotees of Lord Vitthala and there’s a place called Pandharpur, the town of the temple of Vitthala. When they go to that place, they wear a ‘tulasi mala’. And when a person wears this mala, he will never drink or smoke because Lord Vitthala doesn’t like it and the same principle is brought into practice here. Dabbawalas feel that their customer is their Lord Vitthala. These people are poor, they are working in difficult situations, they are not qualified and they don’t use technology, and yet, they possess all these qualities and work with passion and commitment.


Dabawala was started in 1890 by one Mr. Mahadeo Havaji Bachche. He was once asked by a Parsi working in the Britisher’s rank, “Will you bring my tiffin from my home?” He simply answered “Yes, I will, no problem.” From that day onwards, he started to collect tiffins from homes and delivering them to the respective workplaces. In 1890, there was one dabbawala and one customer, and now, there are 5000 dabbawalas and 200,000 customers, which means, one dabbawala carries approximately 40 tiffins. The maximum weight comes to 65-70kg; carrying that much weight in the crowded local trains is a lot of hard work. Why do they do it then? Work is worship. And, as far as qualification is concerned, you will see that the average literacy rate is 8th grade schooling; which means the dabbawalas are illiterate and yet they have managed to achieve a Six Sigma quality rating, which means only one wrong service in a 6 million deliveries.

Ownership is a feeling that an employee has to instill in oneself, and unless you get that feeling of ownership you cannot work excellently. In 120 years, it has never happened that a dabbawala has failed to deliver. It’s impossible. They will never tell you that “the trains are late today,” and even if Mumbai trains are late, the tiffins can’t be late. The dabbawala knows that if he’s not going in time, his customer will eat outside food, pay money for it and waste time. The dabbawala knows the consequences of going late. So he always goes on time. The people of Mumbai say with confidence that “our lunch can go wrong but not the Mumbai dabbawalas.” So nobody can stop you from being punctual. In a lot of institutes, I have found that there are a number of teachers, a number of professors, who always come late because, according to me, they decide to go late. Time is very important and it is possible to be punctual if you have a strong structure. Dabbawalas don’t know the meaning of structure. Let me speak about (mukadal) group leaders. A group has 10, 20, or 25 dabbawallas, depending on the density of customers in your area, and their in-charge is the group leader. The responsibility to keep the dabbawalas and the customers happy is on the group leader. Despite the fact that he doesn’t get even a rupee extra for the extra10% that he works, he feels proud to be a group leader. For example, the group leader also takes care of the train passes of the dabbawalas, to check whether they have expired or not; he reminds the dabbawalas in case their passes are about to expire in the next 2-3 days and also buys the pass for the dabbawala if he fails to do so himself in order to ensure that timely delivery doesn’t suffer. I will tell you an instance of how one dabbawala performs duty in one day. He collects 40 tiffins from a particular area and drops them in the Vile Parle railway station because his customer is from Vile Parle. He can’t deliver all of them because he would have to go all over Mumbai, so he leaves these 40 there. That’s his first job. His second job is to collect 35-40 tiffins from his group leader and deliver them to Dadar. His third job is to deliver 30 tiffins to Chavani Road, and in the fourth job from Chavani Road, he delivers 30 tiffins to Churchgate. His fifth job is to go from Church Gate to deliver 30 tiffins to NarimanPoint. Finally, in his sixth job, he delivers 30 tiffins to Express Tower to the customers before lunch time and after lunch, he will reroute back to his original area and deliver the same tiffins from where he had collected them. After all this, Forbes has found 1 erroneous delivery out of 6 million deliveries, but they don’t accept that either. They are unhappy that that one error has occurred.

Twelve years ago, some people from Delhi came to Dabbawala and said they want to do research on Dabbawala; they prepared a project and went back to Delhi.They called after 3 months and informed Dabbawala about Six Sigma. Dabbawalas didn’t know what it meant. They told Dabbawala it was a big honour so Dabbawala asked them to send it across. They were told to go to Delhi and collect it. Sixteen dabbawalas went to Delhi to collect the Six Sigma certification. People work so hard for Three and Four Sigma but dabbawalas got Six Sigma because they didn’t care about the certification and cared only about customer satisfaction. It is a big achievement especially without the use of technology. Even if the dabbawalas use technology in the form of mobile phones, they can’t because both their hands are used in delivering tiffins. Technology is useless for them for delivery. And after all this, they charge only 400 rupees per month for delivery. So, I asked one dabbawala why they charge so less. He said his customers are poor. I asked him how much he earns; he said Rs 6000-7000 or Rs 8000-9000 a month. If they want more income, they work extra. Dabbawala then gave me an example of a teacher, who earns only Rs 5000 per month as a government rule. He said, “Despite the teacher’s double graduation, I earn more than him, so I’m happy.” When students and parents come to our institute, the first question they ask is about placements. And everyone, including me, lie when they say 100% placements. Their second question is about the package. I say 20 lakhs. That’s it. They would have decided based solely on the package. There was a student I met once, who had a package of 11 lakhs, but he didn’t take it up because he was looking for 12 lakhs. I was shocked. I always advise students, when you get a job, commit yourself completely to that organization, that company, and they’ll pay you what you want. Industry people taught me two words: attrition and retention. Dabbawalas have a 0% attrition rate and a 100% retention rate, because they believe that work is worship. For example, some customers refuse to pay bonus, but the dabbawalas don’t disrupt their services. So I asked one of them why, he said, “the customer is my God, he has paid me 12 months’ of salary so it’s ok if he doesn’t pay me one month’s bonus.” Despite the disputes there has never been a police or a court case. Every 15 days they have a meeting. The disputing dabbawalas resolve their disputes and if they can’t, the president takes a call and they follow his judgment without questioning. Dabbawalas feel satisfied. I asked one customer, what he thinks about the dabbawalas. He said, “Excellent. When I get my salary I am afraid of carrying it in the local train because it’s so crowded and I can get robbed so instead, after I have lunch, I put the money in the empty dabba and send to my wife.” Dabbawalas are very honest. If you do services consistently and with discipline, then the customer, at some point of time, will believe that you are God.

In one day, one dabbawala handles 500 tiffins. There is a 79-year-old man who is a dabbawala, nobody’s forcing him, but he still works because he thinks he can still provide service to his customers. The dabbawalas use bicycles. Another thing is the coding system; about 100 years ago, they were using colour codes. Then when Mumbai grew and the number of customers increased, they started using alphabets; A for Andheri, B for Bandra, etc. And today, they write a proper code with details of the source, destination and all the dabbawalas involved in that particular delivery. When this tiffin is coded and then washed, sometimes the coding becomes unclear, so the dabbawala takes colour out of his pocket and overwrites the code. He doesn’t complain about it, he just finishes the job. Due to the overcrowded Mumbai local trains, some people enter the luggage department, and when they do, the tiffins stick to their heads. So they start fighting with the dabbawalas and the dabbawalas also fight with them but only till the station arrives, because after that they’re more interested in the delivery. They use carts for longer distances. In running local trains, they sort the tiffins to save time. Risk is there, but it’s there everywhere. You must work with the situation. For example, they lost some income and customers because of some instances. In 1969, customers stopped taking food. In 1975, there was a railway strike; the dabbawalas lost one month’s income. In 1982, 40,000 meal workers went on strike. Till today they’re on strike. A lot of people lost their lives. Dabbawalas have gone through all this and come out shining. They have been featured on multiple channels and have been awarded multiple awards. These 50 Indians have influenced Mumbai: Tata, Birla, Ambani, Thakarey, Sharukh Khan, Amitabh Bachhan and Mumbai Dabbawala. Somebody took a survey in Mumbai about the likes of people, and Dabbawala was one of them. I am not a Dabbawala. I’m not involved in any of the operations at all. I have done a Ph.D. on this subject and my topic was ‘A study of logistics in supply chain management of Dabbawala in Mumbai.’ It took a lot of years to complete my Ph.D. But, two days into the research, I was taken aback by the passion of these people. I decided to do the research whether or not I complete my Ph.D. Prince Charles came to Mumbai in 2003. Six months before his visit, Mr. Jeetendra Jain, in the British Council of India, contacted dabbawala to arrange a visit. Dabbawala first refused and then, after realizing that Prince Charles is Britain’s royalty in the manner of a king, he agreed, but, with two conditions. First one was that Prince Charles should come at the Dabbawala’s convenience -- between 11 and 11.40 because that’s when they’re free. Second, Prince Charle must go to Dabbawala himself. Where to? The footpath. Prince Charles accepted these conditions. Richard Branson came to Mumbai. He wanted a photo with Dabbawala to put it up in his office in London to send a message to his employees to work like Dabbawalas. That’s the impact of Mumbai Dabbawala. There was an inauguration of a book written by Shobha Bondre. This was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh. The chief minister said that for every program he goes an hour late but for a dabbawala program he came 5 minutes early because he was scared that if he came late the Dabbawalas will go away. I feel very proud to have written a book called Masters of Supply Chain Management on the dabbawalas. In London, I delivered a speech. There were 240 executives from all over the world. Because I was Indian, they displayed saris all over the auditorium to show the impact of Indian culture on them. I was asked one question, suppose my customer was on the moon, how will the Dabbawalas deliver the tiffin? I said if the moon is in Mumbai, they will, because they’re the Mumbai Dabbawalas. When Prince Charles got married, only three Indians were invited, out of which, two were Dabbawalas. When it was the 26th of July, we were flooded with water. Prince Charles called Dabbawala and said that he and his country are with them. That’s the kind of impact the Dabbawalas have.

I wanted the Dabbawalas to learn computers and English. They didn’t want to learn, so I got a wooden local train and put PCs inside and now they take classes. Similarly, for English. So friends, make use of your qualifications with an aim of serving, not yourself, but your family and other people.

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