- An Entrepreneurial Success Story
Despite the current emphasis on high technology for solving complex business logistics issues, a group of largely illiterate Indian entrepreneurs known as dabbawalas has been coordinating the delivery of home-cooked lunches to thousands of Indian office workers for over a century. Using Six Sigma principles to improve their operations, the dabbawalas have capitalized on the high demand among
Indians in Mumbai for food prepared in their home villages. Originated under British colonial rule, the dabbawala system of food delivery uses a hub-and-spoke system of foot, bicycle, handcart, and trainbased transport linking local village kitchens to urban consumers in metropolitan Mumbai. For an upfront investment of roughly 5,000 Rupees, a dabbawala can earn an average of 5,000-6,000 Rupees
(approx. 100$)per month. Each dabbawala donates a portion of his earnings to their member association, which invests the funds in community projects and low-interest loans. Known for its ingenious use of simple symbols to coordinate thousands of daily deliveries, the dabba system represents a classic example of using a base-of-the-pyramid approach to benefit low-income workers and high-income earners alike.
A dabbawala is a person in Mumbai, India, whose job is carrying and delivering freshly-made food from home in lunch boxes to office workers. They are formally known as MTBSA (Mumbai Tiffin Box
Suppliers Association), but most people refer to them as the dabbawalas. The concept of dabbawalas originated when India was under British rule. Since many British people who came to India did not like the local food, a service was set up to bring lunch to their offices straight from their home. The 100-odd dabbas (or lunch boxes) of those days were carried around in horse-drawn trams and delivered in the Fort area, which housed important offices. Today, businessmen in modern Mumbai use this service and have become the main customers of the dabbawalas. In fact, the 5,000-strong workforce (there are a handful of women) is so well-known that Prince Charles paid them a visit during his recent trip to India. Several academic institutions regularly invite the dabbawalas’ representatives for discussion, and to complement and enhance their academic content. At times, businesses find it useful to illustrate the application of how such a system uses Six Sigma principles to improve its operations.
The main reason people use the service of the dabbawalas is to eat a proper, home-prepared meal during lunch. Office-goers in Mumbai usually leave at 7 am and do not get back until after 7 pm. Most of them commute from suburbs of Mumbai and travel south to the main commercial area of Mumbai. The railway network during the peak hours is jam-packed with commuters hanging on the trains with one hand. Thus bringing one’s lunch at that time is not feasible. Eating on the roadside is unhealthy and unhygienic. Plus, the Indian diversity of food habits makes it very difficult to answer the specific need of each employee at the office mess. By delivering to each employee his tiffin or lunch filled with food prepared at his home, the dabbawalas solve the problem for an estimated 200,000 people. They charge between Rs. 150 to Rs. 300 (roughly 3-7 USD), per dabba per month, depending on the location and collection. How It Works
First, each morning the dabbawala’s collect the lunchboxes from households and mark it with a unique code. They all then gather at a designated location to sort the boxes and group them into carriages Dabba Markings/Coding
The “address” of the customer is painted on the top by the dabbawala. The codes use colour, dashes, crosses, dots and simple symbols to indicate the various parameters such as originating suburb, route to take, destination station, whose responsibility, the street, building, floor, etc. The work is known