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Mumbai Markings Enhance Service Design

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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • awdsgn December 9, 2009, 6:19 AM

    Sounds a LOT like how packet switching works on the Internet. The lunch boxes/bundles = packets, hub points = routers. Interesting.

  • jan December 10, 2009, 2:01 AM

    I have traveled in India for long periods. The system is one of the wonders of the world, truly. What is accomplished at a grassroots organizing level is sheer genius. The simplicity of it, the ability of illiterate people to function superbly in it, the reliability of the delivery is stunning. I once left a guest house before a shirt I had sent to be laundered was returned. The shirt “found me” in a city a-day-and-a-half away. The pride in service is remarkable. I have read that crimes have been solved through the coding used on laundry, it is that reliable. Thanks for the reporting! The photos are beautiful.

  • Sita Wadhwani December 16, 2009, 5:45 PM

    Meanest Indian! Would you like to contribute to CNNGo, a new online travel guide to urban culture in Asia? I am the Mumbai editor.

  • Meena Kadri February 24, 2010, 7:50 PM

    @ Sita Wadhwani: Great that you were in touch. If any one out there’s interested here’s the article that came out of Sita’s call to contribute to CNNGo.

  • Geeta January 5, 2011, 6:54 AM

    Your photos are wonderful. I especially liked your celebration of all the wallahs and wallis of India in the CNN piece. Beautifully done. I am missing India so very much at the moment. If you’re ever in Washington, DC, would love to have you join my supper table.

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