Mumbai Dabbawalas – business and beyond

‘Mumbai Dabbawalas’, a commercial trust has delivered 6 sigma standard supply chain excellence using traditional and non-conventional modes of operation. Building on their operational excellence, the dabbawalas are constantly reinventing their services to touch  lives across Mumbai more meaningfully.

Business Operations:

‘Mumbai Dabbawalas’, meaning ‘lunch box delivery men’, provide a highly specialized service of delivering around 260,000 lunchboxes through 5,000 dabbawalas in Mumbai. Although the service originated during British times in the 1890s, the commercial arm of this trust was registered in 1968 as ‘Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association’. The dabbawalas charge as low as INR 450 per month for their services. They have an annual turnover of more than INR 50 crore. Every dabbawala is an equal shareholder in the trust and earns around INR 10,000 per month.

A collecting dabbawala, usually on a bicycle, collects dabbas either from a worker’s home or from the dabba makers. The dabbawala then groups the lunchboxes as per locality and the grouped boxes are transported via local trains. At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them to the final destination. The empty boxes are collected later and sent back to their respective houses. The 5,000 or so dabbawalas in the city have an astounding service record. Every working day, they transport more than 130,000 lunchboxes across Mumbai, the world’s fourth-most-populous city. That entails conducting upwards of 260,000 transactions in six hours each day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year (minus holidays), but mistakes are extremely rare. Amazingly, the dabbawalas—semi-literate workers who largely manage themselves—have achieved that level of performance at a very low cost, in an eco-friendly way, without the use of any IT system or even cell phones.

Exhibit: Mumbai Dabbawalas – Daily Supply Chain activities


The Mumbai dabbawalas have maintained their immaculate service and impeccable delivery even in the harshest of times. The notorious Mumbai monsoons or the frequent strikes in the city have never impacted their service in the past 50 years. While sticking to traditional methods of transportation, they have also leveraged technology by offering SMS based services to ensure maximum customer satisfaction. They are constantly in touch with the fast changing business environment and leverage technology to meet the needs of their customers. In 2005, Harvard Business Review found the reliability of Mumbai dabbawalas to adhere to a six sigma standard. This means that the dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries. To sum up, the Mumbai dabbawalas are a perfect example of leveraging indigenous modes of operation with modern technology practices.  


Pillars of Success:

The dabbawalas have an overall system whose basic pillars—organization, management, process, and culture—are perfectly aligned and mutually reinforcing. In the corporate world, it is not very common for managers to strive for this synergy. While most, if not all, pay attention to some of the pillars, only a minority address all four.

1. Organization:

The organization of dabbawalas is relatively flat with 3 levels of hierarchy: the top level management that runs the trust, the mid-level employees responsible for planning and operations and the delivery men who form the backbone of the entire organization.

2. Management:

The management philosophy considers the mid-level managers as neither leaders nor supervisors. They are architects who design and fine-tune systems that enable the delivery workforce to perform at optimal levels of efficiency.

3. Process:

The process defined by the dabbawalas focuses on a single measure – customer service and satisfaction. All other considerations like cost, schedule, etc. revolve around the objective goal of maximizing customer service levels.

4.  Culture:

Since most of the managers have a direct stake in the dabbawala organization, the culture within the organization emphasizes managers to nurture their organization as a closely knit community. This helps the organization take care of their employees and also helps maximize productivity and creativity. Overall, an inclusive culture that seeps across the dabbawala organization is essential to create a sense of accountability at all levels that is the driver of their impeccable operations.

Organizational Structure:

The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (MTBSA) is a streamline 120-year-old organization with 4500 semi-literate members who provide quality door-to-door service to a large and loyal customer base. MTBSA is a three-tiered organization: the governing council (president, vice president, general secretary, treasure and nine directors); the mukadams; and, the dabbawala. MTBSA is also the uncontested institution that regulates activities of all the dabbawalas and solves possible conflicts between them or with customers or authorities. It also has the authority to fire “bad” dabbawalas or give fines to those who commit errors repeatedly. With a relatively flat and organic organization, most of the decision making is decentralized. Also, the span of control is generally very small within the organization. This helps the dabbawalas drive higher agility and responsiveness in their organization.

Marketing Ventures: the way forward

The dabbawalas have found global recognition right from Prince Charles to Sir Richard Branson for their supply chain brilliance. The recent Hindi film ‘The Lunchbox’ has brought the much-feted dabbawalas or tiffin carriers of Mumbai into the reckoning once again. They are a unique feature of the city, as they go about their task of delivering food from point A to point B. Capitalizing on this popularity, Mumbai dabbawalas are going beyond the conventional barriers of their delivery business. They are increasingly taking up new roles and responsibilities far beyond their traditional business of delivering tiffin boxes. They are foraying into newer avenues across the industry to find newer ways to generate revenue. Marketers see the Mumbai dabbawalas as a perfect medium for advertising in a city like Mumbai.

One such example is that of the German conglomerate Siemens, which embarked on its global campaign ‘Answers That Last’ in order to get the B2B brand closer to people. The campaign aimed at narrating stories of how Siemens improved lives, cities and businesses. This campaign was launched on a global scale in over 80 countries. For each country, the chosen stories were localized to make them relevant for the country. Specifically for India, Siemens identified dabbawalas as a pivot for their launch. The company sought the help of a dabbawala named Kiran Gavande to narrate his story of how Siemens’ technology had made life simpler for him.

The dabbawalas also get repeat customers from marketing organizations. They have done multiple stints of roadside awareness spreading marketing campaigns with companies across wide domains such as McDonald’s in the food industry and Colors in the television industry. The campaign with the dabbawalas sporting Amitabh Bachchan masks during the launch of a new Bigg Boss season was a high point  in their latest marketing endeavours. Confectionary major Perfetti also effectively sought the services of the dabbawalas to create buzz for their ‘Mangofillz’ candy a couple of year back.

The dabbawalas have been very careful while taking up assignments related to advertising and marketing. They have made sure that they always stick to their core values of excellence in customer service and any added work activities are only complementary to the same. Advertising has to be not just media-neutral but also media inventive, and the ubiquitous dabbawalas provide a new avenue for precisely that by blurring the lines between media and message.

The dabbawalas have become icons of hard work and dedication. They are here for the long haul and over time will only get better. Mumbai dabbawalas have truly revolutionized application of simple concepts with their innovative and indigenous cost effective solutions to solve larger problems of supply chain management. Also, with their appetite for higher growth and an outlook to diversify operations, Mumbai dabbawalas will only become more prominent in the city over the next few years.

Himanshu Pandey is a PGP1 student at IIM Ahmedabad, and a member of the Consult Club. Prior to joining IIM-A, he worked with Procter & Gamble in the Supply Chain function as a capacity planner and project manager. He holds a Bachelors degree in Aerospace Engineering from IIT Bombay.


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