Lessons from the Lunch Pail

Big business has a lot to learn from Mumbai’s dabbawalas, lunchbox carriers who keep the office workers of India’s “Maximum City” well-fed every day with home-cooked lunches. An article in the August 1, 2015, edition of FT Weekend by Asia editor Davil Pilling and Indonesia correspondent Avantika Chilkoti details how an army of these 5,000 meal deliverers—named about the “dabbas,” or metal tiffin boxes—have been a part of the fabric of the frenzied Indian metropolis for over a century. Today the dabbawalas make 260,000 transactions daily, delivering 130,000 boxes to offices every morning and returning home every afternoon, six days a week, 51 weeks a year. That’s a staggering near-80 million annual deliveries.

“My brother did it, that’s why I did it,” Dashrat Kedari told the FT about his induction into the profession at the age of 16. “This job makes me feel good. Feeding people is a worthwhile occupation.” Organized in a co-operative, the dabbawalas enjoy decent pay, job security, and command respect in this toughest of Indian cities.

What’s most impressive and inspirational is the operation’s near-flawless efficiency. Customers almost universally praise the service and the dabbawalas’ have been feted by royals like Prince Charles, greeted by titans of industry lie Richard Branson, studied by worldwide delivery and logistics operations like FedEx, written about by academic business journals like The Harvard Business Review.

Six Sigma, a measurement standard developed by Motorola in the 1980s and now used by GE and BAE Systems, among others, is defined as 3.4 defective part or errors per million opportunities. For the dabbawalas, that means fewer than 300 dabbas must go astray each year. The FT article explains: “Among the explanations for such suppose accuracy, the Harvard Business Review hones in on four: organization; process; worker empowerment (the dabbawalas set their own prices and find their own customers); and culture (they hail from the same cluster of villages and have a shared religion and language).”

Dr. Pawan G. Agrawal, who earned his PhD studying how dabbawalas operate, has given TED talks on their logistics and supply chain management. Now a regular on the lecture circuit, coaching businesses in the theory and practice of dabbawala logistics, Dr. Agrawal asks, “What can we learn from them? Passion. Commitment. Dedication. Accuracy. Time Management. And very important: customer satisfaction. They believe work is worship. And number two, the customer is god.”

To these eyes, the dabbawalas look like a model in how to unleash employee engagement. What are the ingredients in the lunch pail? Responsibility, learning, recognition, and joy.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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