The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, popularly known as Mumbai’s dabbawalas, have a 120 year old reputation for unerringly delivering home cooked food in tiffin boxes to a huge base of customers across Mumbai. Started by Mahadeo Havaji Bachche in 1890, NMTBSA, a lunch delivery service, was registered as a charitable trust in 1956. And since then, from about a 100 men, the band of dabbawalas has expanded to a good 5,000, a lot of them semi-literates, who deliver two lakh tiffin boxes – four lakh transactions – every day sans any error.
|"We don’t understand Six Sigma. We are a bunch of illiterates. But we do know our prime responsibility – customer satisfaction. And to achieve that, we can put in hard work like no one else"
- Raghunath Medge
President, Nutan Mumbai Tiffin
Box Suppliers Association
Considering the chaotic Mumbai traffic and the erratic monsoon patterns, it is no small miracle that the dabbawalas never fail to deliver the tiffin boxes on time. What is more surprising is the fact that their logistics system employs no technology to ensure this minimum error rate; it relies solely on human endeavour. This is what makes them superior to any MNC that deploys various technologies while striving to gain perfection.
In 1998, Forbes Global magazine conducted an analysis and gave NMTBSA a Six Sigma rating for efficiency, thus placing the company, 85 per cent of whose workers are illiterate, in the league of world leaders such as HSBC, Wipro and Cognizant. NMTBSA’s 120 year old logistics system, where the error rate is one in 16 million transactions, is considered one of the best in the world.
“We don’t understand Six Sigma. We are a bunch of illiterates. But we do know our prime responsibility – customer satisfaction. And to achieve that, we can put in hard work like no one else,” says NMTBSA President Raghunath Medge.
Mantra for perfection
Four lakh transactions in a day is not a matter of joke. It requires an infallible logistics system, continuous effort and flawless technology, as many would like to believe. While the former two hold true, the latter is inconsequential for this manual work driven organisation.
The dabbawalas have developed a colour coding system with English alphabets and numerals and their traditional way of using coloured thread, which acts as an ID system for the source as well as destination. The tiffin boxes are painted with codes that indicate the originating station, the code for the dabbawalas at the destination, the recipient’s address in the form of a code for the building name, floor number, etc., the code for the dabbawalas at the residential system and the code of the destination station. This technique is considered to be far more simple and cost effective than bar coding.
How they do it
To deliver the lunch tiffin boxes, the dabbawalas walk, cycle and use Mumbai’s suburban trains, which are known to have the highest density of travellers in the world. More than six million commuters travel by train, making the task of the dabbawalas even tougher. However, the simple yet robust system developed by the dabbawalas has helped overcome all these obstacles.
The delivery system revolves around strong teamwork and strict time management. The dabbawalas start early in the morning. At 9 am, the full tiffin boxes are collected from homes, messes or hotels, loaded onto trolleys and pushed to the railway station. The boxes are loaded into the luggage cabin of the metropolis’ local trains and unloaded at the destined stations. At this point, the coded boxes are rearranged so that those going to similar destinations, end up on the same trolley. The meals are then delivered – 99.9999 per cent of the time to the right address.
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