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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

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Pauline Cameron May 20, 2013, 11:19 AM

    I have just recently been to Mumbai and saw the Dabbawallas going about their daily business. As we were there for over 3 weeks we managed to see a lot of them and fortunately we had a local with us most of the time who explained what they were doing. I could not fathom out how it worked in a city with so many people and the chaos on the streets especially morning and afternoon. After reading this article, I now have the gaps filled and I am amazed how someone was ingenious enough to figure out a system that works in frenetic and chaotic Mumbai. Good read, thank you.

  • Analisa July 4, 2013, 12:22 AM

    My brother suggested I might like this website.

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  • Aarti Jesrani March 5, 2014, 5:34 PM

    I spent 30 years in Mumbai and didn’t know the back story behind how it all began. Thanks for the amazing post.

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