I was browsing around my local library this weekend when my eyes happened to fall on a book called A Moveable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization and since I was willing to do anything to kill some time before the Super Bowl (congrats to the New York Giants!) I decided to give it the once over. I was fascinated to read about some people in the Mumbai (formerly Bombay) district India that go by the name of “dabbawallas” whose job it is to pick and deliver lunches throughout one of the most densely populated cities in the world with nary a map or database to assist them in their efforts. All of this is done with a precision that most military’s in the world would envy.

Loosely translated, the name “dabbawalla” means “a person who carries a box”. Now, I know that in this hi-tech age that doesn’t sound fancy but hopefully after you continue reading this you’ll be just as amazed as I was once you consider the efficiency and accuracy of the system they devised.

The morning rush hour in Mumbai is chaotic to say the least. With over 19,000 people per square kilometer, rapid transit and the local train systems are packed to the gills with people headed off to work. Needless to say, space is at a premium and rather than lug their lunches to work with them or purchase it in a local restaurant, many commuters prefer the taste of a good home cooked meal to be delivered to directly to them.

The tradition started way back in the 1880’s when India was a British colony. Many of the loyal subjects hadn’t yet acquired a taste for the local cuisine and preferred to have their meals specially prepared an delivered to their place of work. They employed local youths to bicycle back and forth between their home and their offices and provide them with meals.

Today, that system has grown to over 5000 carriers each of whom carry up to thirty five lunches a day from doorstep to office. The lunches are packed into that is known as “tiffin boxes” and each one is distinguished from the other by special markings or etchings. Since most of the dabbawalla are illiterate words and letters don’t do them any good.

Every day at around 10:AM the dabbawallas will pick up the lunches from their clients' homes. They do this through blazing heat and drenching monsoons.Then through a series of bicycles and trains a sort of human chain is formed. The lunches are sorted and stacked and then delivered to the various offices and other places throughout the city. After lunch time is over the boxes are then picked up and delivered back to their house of origin.

I know it sounds simple but when you consider that somewhere between 175,000 and 200,000 meals are delivered daily with an accuracy rate of 99.999999% it’s enough to make one sit up and take notice. That equates to less than one mistake for every 16,000,000 deliveries. It’s also a number many of the companies that preach Six Sigma tenets would die for.

Recently, the dabbawallas and their system has become recognized as one of the more efficient delivery systems in the world, rivaling that of such major companies as FedEx and UPS. They have been the subject of a documentary on BBC and have recently been touted as a model of efficiency in Forbes magazine.

What’s even more impressive is that while the dabbawallas themselves have very little if any formal education and are paid only about the equivalent of eighty US dollars a month, they managed to create a model that many businesses are trying to copy. It’s become quite common for up and coming managers in India’s booming technology field to spend a week or two out off the office and amongst the dabbawalla to try and emulate their methods in different fields.

One would think that with the advent of GPS systems, computers, bar codes, scanning devices and other advances in telecommunications that the days of the dabbawallas are numbered. In fact, they are thriving and a recent study conducted by the New York Times indicated that they are expected to grow at a rate of five or ten percent for the foreseeable future. That’s a number that would make some Fortune 500 companies jealous.

I guess it’s true, there’s no substitute for first hand experience.




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