Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Lessons learned from Mumbai’s Dabbawallas

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Who are Dabbawallas and what they do?

Around 5,000 dabbawallas (or also known as tiffin-carriers) work every day through a system of multiple relay to deliver more than 175,000 tiffin boxes for lunch in the city of Mumbai, India in an exercise that begins at 9 am and ends at 5 pm. To read how mind-boggling and yet executed in a military precision the operation is, read here.

In a summary, this is how it is done:-

The first dabbawalla picks up the tiffin from home and takes it to the nearest railway station. The second dabbawalla sorts out the dabbas (tiffins) at the railway station according to destination and puts them in the luggage carriage. The third one travels with the dabbas to the railway stations nearest to the destinations. The fourth one picks up dabbas from the railway station and drops them of at the offices. The process is reversed in the evenings.

Each team operates without the luxury of a database (or paperwork) and therefore each dabbawalla has to memorise up to 35 addresses.

What is so important about dabbawallas?

The finely-tuned system earned the dabbawallas a Six Sigma rating from business magazine Forbes (the other recipients of Six Sigma include Motorola and General Electric).

A Six Sigma performance rating or a 99.999999 percentage of correctness means one error in six million transactions. Six Sigma is a process that helps organisations to focus on delivering near-perfect products and services. If you use Six Sigma you can measure how many defects there are in a process and can systematically figure out how to eliminate them and try and achieve zero-defect status.

In a dabbawalla’s terms, that means only one in eight million tiffin boxes fails to reach its destination.

Key business success points in meeting Six Sigma are as follows:-

1. They rely on low capital and use cycles, carriages and local trains to achieve their target
2. They work independently & network with each other to achieve one goal
3. They meet once a month where all the groups gather and thrash out issues
4. There is no retirement age. People work as long as they want to
5. Since their lifestyle is simple & involves physical exercise (such as carrying 35kg of tiffin for few kilometers), they rarely suffer from illnesses.
6. The dabbawallas have a credit society which gets them through money crunches

Same business lessons in layman’s sense

1. Ensure usage of low capital by relying on cost-cutting approach to meet the target.
2. Work independently (better focus) but at same time, network with others (share work load) to achieve common goal.
3. Meet often to brain-storm and clarify issues at hand
4. There is no limitation if one focus on the job at hand
5. Keep lifestyle simple to reduce unnecessary stress
6. Manage financials wisely
Yes, we have heard of it before but to see it in action, just have a look at a dabbawalla

* Some texts extracted from here and here
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