Mumbai Markings Enhance Service Design

December 9, 2009

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.