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Dabbawallas: Innovation Contained and Coded

Works That Work is a new international design magazine that looks beyond mere portfolios – a magazine dedicated to inspiration and observation, to conditions and contexts, a kind of National Geographic of design. Here’s the original edit of my article which appeared in their inaugural issue – which I researched in Mumbai across numerous train trips, cycle chases and hub hunt-downs.

Mumbai’s committed contingent of 5000 dabbawallas deliver over 350 000 lunches per day to office workers across the megacity. Typically the lunches are collected and returned to clients’ homes in stacked metal lunchboxes which lend this collection of culinary couriers their name: dabba = tiffin, container, walla = worker. Each tiffin enters a journey to and from the office, during which it will pass through the hands of at least 12 dabbawallas across an elaborate zoning system. Somewhere in the middle – away from the fast paced delivery antics – a home-cooked lunch is enjoyed.

Most discussions on dabbawallas start with their innovative system – but in designerly fashion, let’s start with the end user. Those who engage the services of dabbawallas tend to be middle class office workers who embrace the Indian preference and pride in ghar ka khana (home cooked food). Most of them reach work by train, which means they leave home early and may be boarding chaotically packed carriages – making carrying their own tiffin a challenge. Add to this the status of arriving at work unencumbered. The dabbawalla system provides a welcome solution by collecting meals, lovingly prepared at home, then getting them to and from the office. Lunching clients have diverse dietary preferences – Muslims, Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and more join diabetics and dieters – enhancing the need for precision delivery of the correct meal to its rightful recipient.

One such discerning diner was a Parsi banker working in Mumbai in the 1880s, who employed a young errand boy to deliver his lunch. Others, envious of his promptly delivered, freshly made, home-cooked lunches soon requested the services of the delivery boy. The boy was Mahadeo Havaji Bacche from Pune who is credited with founding the Mumbai dabbawallas. Unable to keep up with demand, he enlisted others from his village in Pune and close-by. This location-based connectedness continues to enrich the signature camaraderie of dabbawallas to this day. Bacche’s understanding of client needs, fellow workers’ capabilities and Mumbai’s specific transport context allowed him to leverage local factors to build a service which was able to grow from his initial team of 100 to the 5000+ dabbawallas that keep Mumbai office workers fuelled and fed today.
 

Tiffins are often carried overhead onto trains – efficient yet challenging given the bustling nature of Mumbai stations

So it might sound fairly straightforward – delivering lunch boxes from people’s homes to their places of work and back again. However the challenge for dabbawallas is to do so at scale within a lean business model, negotiating time-bound trains and dense urban environments while grouping deliveries to similar locations for efficient delivery. For this they employ a hub and spoke distribution approach. Lunches are usually collected from individual homes by foot or by bicycle around 9-10am. Once you cotton on to this, you’ll be surprised how often you spot dabbawallas on bicycles laden with tiffins around Mumbai during their morning or afternoon deliveries. From the morning collection, the tiffins are taken to a local sorting hub where they are grouped according to those heading into the city on the same train line. They’re often carried overhead on large metal trays – a tricky task when having to board urban trains, which only stop briefly. At the other end they enter another hub where they are sorted again according to neighbourhood destinations. From here the tiffins continue their journey by bicycle or trolley with the final delivery usually being done on foot. Keep in mind that individual dabbawallas only serve on a specific part of the tiffin’s passage. It’s the smooth running of all the hub and spoke locations which ensure its delivery across an average 60-70km travelled by each tiffin. A senior dabbawalla quips “It’s like a cricket team. Team work is essential” – an analogy which resonates amongst the cricket-loving nation that is India. Worth noting is that some downtown office buildings, where the service is popular, keep one of their multiple elevators free over lunchtime – specifically for the respected dabbawallas and their appetite-appeasing deliveries.
 

The dabbawalla’s coding system employs letters, numbers, colours and symbols which signal each tiffin’s delivery path.

The localised efficiency of the dabbawalla system has been hailed by business and design schools worldwide. Forbes Magazine awarded it a Sigma Six rating in 2002, deeming that less than one mistake is made in every 6 million deliveries – that’s 12 million dispatches if you count both directions. So how does is this accuracy ensured by a workforce which has traditionally possessed low literacy? Historically the dabbawallas developed their own code utilising numbers, letters, colours and symbols applied to the tiffins so that they can be sorted systematically at key points of the journey. (It’s not dissimilar to the notion of packet-switching by which digital data is transmitted via shared networks like the internet.) At larger hub points, a dabbawalla is stationed with the dedicated task of spotting potential mix-ups and redirecting misplaced lunchboxes back on their correct trajectory.

With an annual turnover surpassing Rs 400 million, the dabbawallas have a surprisingly flat hierarchy. They are united by a workers’ association which is headed by former dabbawallas who are often found sitting cross-legged amongst workers as they take their lunch breaks at various hubs. With monthly tiffin deliveries being priced on weight, size and distance (around Rs 300 – 500 per month), each of the 800 teams splits their share evenly between members, regardless of their seniority. After maintenance costs have been paid for bicycles and other tools of the trade plus a fee to the workers’ association, each dabbawalla takes home around Rs 6000 per month. The association is in good health – supporting the families of deceased workers and donating to various food distribution charities. It also supplements its income through the provision of cooked meal services.
 

Dabbawallas wear a signature Gandhi cap – a uniting visual feature in chaotic rail and road contexts.

The dabbawallas present a united workforce. High levels of trust are cultivated, with new hires being introduced by referral. Most workers sport a white kurta pajama set – though the iconic Gandhi cap is a more prescriptive requirement and make them easy to spot in a crowd. They take lunch together at their respective hubs, from their own tiffins, where spirits run high. The edict by their founder that “Work is Worship” seems prevalent in the pride shown by dabbawallas in the diligent service they provide. Acknowledgement that teamwork is the essence of their enterprise is implicit in their humble approach, which celebrates teamwork over individuals.

This united dedication to a collective pursuit of excellence has served the dabbawallas well in the face of potential disruptions of service such as riots, monsoon floods and the multitude of state and religious holidays which pepper the Indian calendar. However the 1974 railway strikes halted their service temporarily due to the interruption of a core part of their delivery model. “Commitment to excellence is what drives our growth. That and the fact that the stomach is never in recession,” beams the head of the workers’ association. In fact the service continues to achieve 5-6% annual growth and adapts to evolving lifestyles by offering SMS bookings and delivering lunches from diet centers.

As I ride with a group a dabbawallas by train on their return journey, I’m amazed that after a long day of fast paced, heavy labour, that they still have the inclination to discuss ways they could improve the performance and efficiency of their sector. With thousands of satisfied customers, strong solidarity amongst workers and a delivery system ingeniously built on local conditions – you might well ask if the best innovations are home cooked and home grown?

Related posts:
Mumbai Markings Enhance Service Design
Celebrating Street Level Ingenuity
Sustainable Solutions from Mumbai Streets

Works That Work is a new international design magazine that looks beyond mere portfolios – a magazine dedicated to inspiration and observation, to conditions and contexts, a kind of National Geographic of design. Here's the original edit of my article which appeared in their inaugural issue – which I researched in Mumbai across numerous train [...]

Quick-pic Tuesdays: Single Serve

Single Serve

In the age of bulk buy and corporate over-packaging, I tend to enjoy street-food experiences on annual trips to the motherland. I’m particularly fond of offerings from roaming roasted peanut & lentil sellers in Mumbai – equipped for the micro-dose single-serve. Goods are freshly roasted and they’ll happily customise the additional spices to your liking. Plus it’s all wrapped up in the recycled goodness of yesterday’s news. Simplicity reigns.

Related posts:
Sustainable Solutions from Mumbai Streets
Check out more Random Specific images on Flickr

In the age of bulk buy and corporate over-packaging, I tend to enjoy street-food experiences on annual trips to the motherland. I'm particularly fond of offerings from roaming roasted peanut & lentil sellers in Mumbai – equipped for the micro-dose single-serve. Goods are freshly roasted and they'll happily customise the additional spices to your liking. [...]

Reality Flies in Fresh Directions

 
iButterfly is a quirky example of the implementation of Augmented Reality, in which Japanese users chase butterflies with their iPhones.

For those of you still getting up to speed with the concept, Augmented Reality is the mash-up of digital imagery and our physical environment which encourages new forms of interactivity. If you want a less whimsical and more educational example – check out the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum app.

From functional to frivolous, Augmented Reality puts a new spin on Picasso’s quip that “everything you imagine is real.”

Related post:
Low-fi Meets Hi-fi at the Corner of Send & Receive

  iButterfly is a quirky example of the implementation of Augmented Reality, in which Japanese users chase butterflies with their iPhones. For those of you still getting up to speed with the concept, Augmented Reality is the mash-up of digital imagery and our physical environment which encourages new forms of interactivity. If you want a [...]

Mobile Enterprise

mobile_repair
Back here in New Zealand I’ve just been taking my kitchen cupboards apart trying to find a small fitting that seems to have dislodged itself from my pressure cooker – rendering it redundant. Has left me pining for the roving repair-men of India whom I know could sort out my conundrum in a flash.
 
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mobile_broom
Come to think of it I’d also like it if these guys graced my neighbourhood with their presence sometime soon as I have an imminent guest so would like an extra pillow and my vaccum cleaner’s been playing up so I just need a cheap broom to get me through to when I manage to have it fixed.
 
mobile_gas
mobile_knife
And the gas bottle needs changing soon so would be good if I could SMS this pair to drop by and sort things out. Plus with all the great tomatoes in season I need my knives sharpened so would be timely if the other dude rolled up round now as well.
 
mobile_cola
India’s micro-entrepreneurs contribute to a culture of distribution which is liberated from fixed locations playing a vital role in conveniently providing items of regular consumption at relatively affordable prices. Not limited to informal enterprise, such delivery networks are also utilised by corporates from utility providers to Coca Cola – encompassing both motorised and non-motorised options to service challenging locations from densely populated urban neighbourhoods to rural villages.

Mumbai entrepreneur Deepa Krishnan (who oriented me for my recent Dharavi ethnographic research) comments:

“… Indian consumers are probably the most demanding in the world. We want – no, we insist – on superior service, tailored to our needs, at little or no cost. This of course, is a daunting prospect for anyone supplying anything to the Indian market. But sellers who can understand this mindset and who can tailor their products and services to it, are the ones who will succeed and thrive.”

mobile_velowala
My buddies over at Box Design + Research in Delhi partnered with John Thackara a while back to compile a rich-media archive of bicycle dependent commerce: Velowala – for the Biennial of International Design at Saint Etienne. [Illustration by Tenzing Dakpa] Alongside a diverse collection of examples they comment:

“The interesting thing about being on a bicycle is that it immediately frees you as an entrepreneur from the shackles of immovable real estate. Velocommerce is all about the mobility of property, and it challenges notions of ownership and private capital.
It is special because it exists at the intersection of entrepreneurship, mobility, sustainability, grassroots innovation, cultures, local economies and decentralized,
last-mile service delivery.”

worldbike_colalife
In the not-for-profit realm Worldbike highlight how bikes can transform lives – connecting the poor to markets, schools and clinics via their Mobility for Good mantra. Of particular interest is their project at the Kibera slum in Nairobi to develop bike-based technologies and business models that empower local entrepreneurs to earn a living while simultaneously helping address the local garbage problem. Partnering with UN Habitat and local support groups they are devising a system to collect and transport waste from individual dwellings to central deposit sites, where it can be sorted for recycling and disposal. Elsewhere ColaLife proposes that Coca Cola open their distribution channels to transport compact ‘aidpods’ containing items like water purification tablets and oral rehydration salts. Through piggy-backing on Coke’s extensive mobile networks in less affluent countries, ColaLife would aim to contribute to a reduction in infant mortality, improve maternal health and combat prevalent disease. [Images via Worldbike + ColaLife]
 
chotukool
But of course there are ways of impacting issues of poverty via commercial endeavors too. Indian industrial heavyweights Godrej look set to use mobile enterprise networks to reach their customers at the base of the pyramid with their affordable, compact refrigerator. Others entering this space of for-profit solutions aimed at meeting needs of the economically challenged are Tata with their Swach water filter and the French multi-national Schneider with its domestic lighting systems under the In-Diya brand. Given that these companies will need to consider the entire product ecosystem in ensuring access to goods, fittings and service of their offerings – one would imagine they will all be including mobile enterprise in their supply chains to reach customers in both dense and dispersed locations. [Image credit: Outlook – India’s New Retailers]
 
mobile_wool
You can check out more images on my Mobile Enterprise set on Flickr. Meanwhile back at home… I’m looking for a new craft project that gets me off the computer – maybe a visit from this guy could help?

Related articles:
Mobile Enterprise + Mobile Phone
Mumbai’s Pavement Purveyors (CNN)

Back here in New Zealand I've just been taking my kitchen cupboards apart trying to find a small fitting that seems to have dislodged itself from my pressure cooker – rendering it redundant. Has left me pining for the roving repair-men of India whom I know could sort out my conundrum in a flash.   [...]

Mobile Enterprise + Mobile Phone

dharavi_mobile_1
One can find ample instances of mobile phones enhancing the lives of those on low and unpredictable incomes at the base of the pyramid across the world. Today I came across a small yet active example of the advantage of mobile connectivity in the context of my current research endeavors at Dharavi in Mumbai.

Jan Mohammed runs a knife-selling and knife-sharpening enterprise, which he operates from his bicycle, to service the Dharavi-Mahim-Sion area. He conducts business by going door to door in these neighbourhoods and often parks up in one of the busy marketplaces during evenings. Since buying a second-hand mobile phone he has been able to attract the business of local restaurants and caterers who provide bulk sharpening work and have become regular clients via the accessibility his phone assures.

The aspect he likes best about his phone is the prepaid payment method. Having a wife and five children back at his village in Uttar Pradesh means that he makes frequent calls home – but when he is low on money and hasn’t topped up his phonecard he can still receive calls ensuring business. In fact he had just last week paid to replace his knife-sharpening grinder so had no money left for phone credit, yet was still able to receive a lucrative call from a wedding caterer to sharpen 75 knives.
 
dharavi_mobile_2
dharavi_mobile_3
Knife-wallas elsewhere in Dharavi who conduct business without mobile phones.

Related articles:
Pavement Purveyors (Flickr)
Tuned-In

One can find ample instances of mobile phones enhancing the lives of those on low and unpredictable incomes at the base of the pyramid across the world. Today I came across a small yet active example of the advantage of mobile connectivity in the context of my current research endeavors at Dharavi in Mumbai. Jan [...]

Mumbai Markings Enhance Service Design

dabba_dhobi_1
What do laundry and lunch delivery have to do with my favoured intersection of communication, culture and creativity? Well, in the case of Mumbai’s Dabbawallas and Dhobi Ghats – quite a lot. Via their respective coding systems, both enterprises are able to track items within their service chain to ensure accurate delivery.
 
dabba_dhobi_8
The Dabbawalla service entails collection of freshly prepared meals from the residences of suburban office workers from vast reaches of the city, delivery to their workplaces and the return of empty lunch boxes (dabba or tiffin) to its original home – all for a reasonable monthly fee. Delivering over 200,000 lunch boxes each day to workers who have diverse eating habits (often governed by religion) requires an accurate system – especially as each lunch box commonly passes through the hands of at least six men, in quick exchange, on its path from home to office and back again. Most tiffins are collected by bicycle, sorted into destination groups, then carried together on trains and cycled to the offices of their respective customers. In between they are commonly carried on hand pushed carts and large head-balanced trays – all while jostling with chaotic Mumbai rail and road traffic.
 
dabba_dhobi_3
With low literacy being an issue for some of the 5000 dabbawallas, they have devised a coding system using colour, symbols, numbers and a few letters which is painted on the lids of the tiffins to indicate the train lines, hub points and destinations at both ends of the delivery cycle. Each part of the marking can be understood by the relevant dabbawalla as the lunch box exchanges hands through the service chain. In the case that a lunch box gets on the wrong path, the code allows it to be set back on the right track – yielding only one mistake per 6 million deliveries according to economic analysis.
 
dabba_dhobi_4
The Dabbawalla’s have been operating for over a century and the business continues to grow at a rate of 5-10% per year. When I asked about the effects of the economic downturn I was told with a smile that “the stomach knows no recession.” Their innovative localised system has been studied by business schools worldwide and covered by international media including the New York Times. As a brand strategist I also note an additional factor that contributes to their iconic status in the city: the dabbawalla’s signature Gandhi cap. This further serves as a recognition device between workers at busy exchange points and failure to wear one attracts a fine from their registered co-operative association.
 
dabba_dhobi_5
The Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat is the world’s largest outdoor laundry which processes three quarters of a million items daily from households, hospitals, hotels and schools.
 
dabba_dhobi_6
With articles to be washed, dried, starched and pressed coming from distant neighbour-
hoods to this central location – they have also developed a coding system to track and assure accurate return. Many customers dispatch their laundry to local hubs which send in bulk orders to Mahalaxmi. Each laundry hub attaches their articles with a scrap of cloth bearing a code penned in indelible ink – indicating the short-form name of their hub and their total number of articles over the recorded individual item number.
 
dabba_dhobi_7
Workers in both systems are proud of the value that their services provide to the megacity. Together they exemplify the virtues of bottom-up innovation and entrepreneurship at play in this densely populated urban centre. Most dhobis and dabbawallas are migrants to the city – but in the words of 65 year old dhobi walla, Jan Mohammed [pictured above]: “There’s no city like Mumbai.”

Related links:
You can see and read more on my Flickr sets of Dabbawallas and the Dhobi Ghats
and I have upcoming pieces on both services being broadcast on Radio New Zealand.

What do laundry and lunch delivery have to do with my favoured intersection of communication, culture and creativity? Well, in the case of Mumbai's Dabbawallas and Dhobi Ghats – quite a lot. Via their respective coding systems, both enterprises are able to track items within their service chain to ensure accurate delivery.   The Dabbawalla [...]

Tuned In

dharavi_duo
I was scoping out Dharavi yesterday for upcoming ethnographic research and came across this pair sharing headphones to catch the India/Sri Lanka cricket match via a mobile phone. The aspiration value of this part-shared, part-private use of a cellphone feature was evident – as onlookers could sense the excitement they were missing, through following the men’s expressions as the game progressed.

Check out images over upcoming weeks on my Dharavi Flickr set.
[Research updates were previously posted on the the now defunct Prepaid Economy blog]

I was scoping out Dharavi yesterday for upcoming ethnographic research and came across this pair sharing headphones to catch the India/Sri Lanka cricket match via a mobile phone. The aspiration value of this part-shared, part-private use of a cellphone feature was evident – as onlookers could sense the excitement they were missing, through following the [...]

Collective Reflections

tardis_1
Taking inspiration from the other side of the globe, I recently implemented a weekly Learnings Initiative amongst the crew at Tardis Design & Advertising – where I consult from time to time. I’d come across the What I Learnt Last Week approach from the good folk at thinkpublic – a celebrated London agency that applies design to improving service experiences in the public sector.
 
tardis_2
tardis_3
Back here in the Antipodes we each present our learnings as part of weekly Tardis Time meetings. It’s our way of sharing and reflecting on the diversity of inspiration, skills, sightings and experiences that come through the office or touch our lives outside it.
&nbsp
tardis_comp_finalweb
A little something that honours the week that was… before launching into the one ahead.

Taking inspiration from the other side of the globe, I recently implemented a weekly Learnings Initiative amongst the crew at Tardis Design & Advertising – where I consult from time to time. I'd come across the What I Learnt Last Week approach from the good folk at thinkpublic – a celebrated London agency that applies [...]

Fashion, Humanism & the Online Environment

uniform_project
I was particularly heartened to come across the recently launched mash-up of fashion and fundraising: The Uniform Project in which a pledge has been made to wear one dress for one year as an exercise in sustainable fashion.

Actually there are seven identical dresses – one for each day of the week. Every day the dress is artfully reinvented via layers and accessories and images posted online in the effort to raise money for the Akanksha Foundation – a grassroots movement that is revolutionizing education in India.

The project’s brainchild Sheena Matheiken recollects “I was raised and schooled in
India where uniforms were a mandate in most public schools. Despite the imposed conformity, kids always found a way to bend the rules and flaunt a little personality… Girls obsessed over bangles, bindis and bad hairdos. Peaking through the sea of uniforms were the idiosyncrasies of teen style and individual flare. I now want to put the same rules to test again, only this time I’m trading in the Catholic school fervor
for an eBay addiction and relocating the school walls to this wonderful place called
the internet.”

It all made me reflect on my past delvings into fashion and connectivity which I covered in my paper Fashion, Humanism and the Online Environment (1.8MB). Written in 2005 I’m the first to admit that the dialogue has definately moved on. However at the time Web 2.0 was still a fresh enough topic to win me a junior faculty travel award to present at the International Foundation of Fashion Technology Institutes conference in the US. (disclosure: my main driver for submitting the proposal was the thought of a two week escape from the excrutiating heat of high Indian summer – to which, as a New Zealander, I was entirely unaccustomed.)

The Uniform Project goes a long way in exemplifing my suggestion:

“through the internet, fashion holds the power to create space for social, cultural and altruistic discourse… the multi-layering of internet based communication affords the opportunity to participate in the arena of commerce while remaining culturally relevant, responsible and active.”

While I was more speaking about fashion brands leveraging cultural connectivity, The Uniform Project is instead an online fundraising initiative masterfully leveraging fashion itself. Great to see the Manolo on the other foot!

I was particularly heartened to come across the recently launched mash-up of fashion and fundraising: The Uniform Project in which a pledge has been made to wear one dress for one year as an exercise in sustainable fashion. Actually there are seven identical dresses – one for each day of the week. Every day the [...]

Aggregating Eye Candy

imagespark
Currently in beta, Imagespark provides an innovative platform to “collect/discover/ tag/share/ converge” online graphic inspiration from the switched-on crew at Toronto based Teehan+Lax.

We’ve been playing round with it at work & are loving many of its functions – especially its folksonomic leanings, the ability to create moodboards for specific projects/obsessions and the feature to share inspiration or make it private. However we have to mention our concern over the ease the platform presents for ignoring the citation of image sources.

The best part is that Imagespark was conceptualised & developed over a number of months during in-house sessions which “let employees take a break and focus on non-client projects – be it for the sake of creativity or to simply learn something new.” One wonders what other design studios could come up with if they put their recession-led downtime to good use?

Currently in beta, Imagespark provides an innovative platform to "collect/discover/ tag/share/ converge" online graphic inspiration from the switched-on crew at Toronto based Teehan+Lax. We've been playing round with it at work & are loving many of its functions – especially its folksonomic leanings, the ability to create moodboards for specific projects/obsessions and the feature to [...]