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The Bombay Dabbawalas operation is widely recognized as an outstanding example of
excellence in Logistics. It is often quoted as a standard example of six sigma implementation in
the Indian context. Because of its popularity Prince Charles of the United Kingdom paid a visit
to the operations site during his official visit to India in 2003. Bombay Dabbawala's Operations
(BDO) is a home grown model, conceived, developed and perfected by a group of individuals
who have very little or no formal education in the area of Logistics. BDO is operated by a group
of 5000 individuals organized in the form of a cooperative, delivering everyday 150,000 lunch
boxes from home to customer locations in Bombay with negligible error rate. BDO is recognized
as an outstanding example of excellence in service delivery. BDO is the most talked about Indian
example of excellence in logistics operations.

Several academic institutions routinely invite the Bombay Dabbawala representatives to

make formal presentations in their campus to complement and enhance their academic content
of their respective programmes. Often, senior management meetings find it useful to have a
presentation on BDO to illustrate the applicability of six sigmas in Indian context and inspire
managers to adopt and practice world class systems. The popular business press has been
publishing material on BDO from time to time. The Forbes journal had an article on BDO.
Recently the Alliance Air Official Inflight Magazine had an article on BDO. Top ranking
management schools like Harvard Business School have documented BDO as case material for
teaching purposes. Prince Charles of United Kingdom, as a mark of appreciation visited the
Bombay Dabbawalas' work location during his visit to Bombay in 2003.

The organization is really a marvel because it achieves a high level of efficiency and
performance without any documentation, without computers and without an educational work
force. Yet they are the ultimate practitioners of logistic management. They have been practicing
hub and spoke system, just-in-time tactics, no inventory policy and supply chain management
principles even before these terms were even coined. Leaving thefts apart, these dabbawala’s
make a mistake only one every two months. I.e. one error in every 8 million deliveries, making
it one of a kind ‘Six Sigma’ supply chain in India. The six sigma principle was devised by
Motorola for rating operational efficiency in terms of the number of errors that occur in a series
of transactions or activities. In case of dabbawala’s, one error occurs in every 6 million
transactions!! This puts it at par with the likes of Motorola and G.E. such efficiency is marvelled

by various organizations and institutions across the globe. Most organizations and enterprise
would only aspire to be at this level of efficiency that the dabbawala’s operate on The
organization works on a ‘Work is Worship’ philosophy, which is the traditional Indian practice.
They respect food and therefore, there is no misuse of food, timely delivery is important because
it is an individual’s basic need for food at that time. The dabbawala’s have never gone on a strike
since they went into business! Thus, for all of the above reasons, the community of businessmen,
workers, employees and students know the dabbawala’s as their fuel suppliers.

As it is popularly said in Mumbai, ‘If the local train is the lifeline of the city then the
dabbawala’s are the food line’. But there are a lot of aspects that need to be known about the
dabbawala’s, in order to find out why they are so important as a case study in management
schools and as a unique traditional system of Indian management which has to be given its due
recognition. Therefore, let us now take upon each of these aspects of this process.


The dabbawala service had begun informally in Mumbai. According to Raghunath
Medge: A Parsi banker working in Ballad Pier employed a young man who came down from
Poona district to fetch his lunch every day. Business picked up through referrals and soon our
pioneer dabba-carrying entrepreneur had to call for more helping hands from his village. Such
was the origin of dabbawala’s.

However trivial the task may sound it is of vital importance since havoc is caused if the
client has to skip his home-cooked meal or worse, carry his on dabba in theever so crowded
Mumbai trains during the rush hour.

By the early 20th century, people from all part of India were migrating to Mumbai in
large numbers. Once they found a source of livelihood and settled down they wanted home
cooked food at their workplace. Home-cooked food had a comfort level for various reasons.
First, the food was cooked in the ambience of a domestic kitchen, with recipes that were tried
and tested, and that resulted in familiar fare. Second, home-cooked food was comparatively
inexpensive. The dabbawala’s were initially charging two annas per dabba for their delivery

Working independently and in small group for decades, the dabbawala’s had united in
1954 to put together a rudimentary co-operative. This umbrella organization was officially
registered in 1956 as a charitable trust under the name Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers

Charity Trust. At that time, some of the dabbawala’s employed delivery boys to carry their
dabba’s and transport them along the routes on bicycles and push carts. These dabbawala’s
would collect the fees from their clients and pay the delivery boys whatever they could negotiate
with them. This changed in 1983 when the trust adopted anowner-partner system. Under this
new system, the practice of subcontracting was dispensed with and dabbawala’s started to
receive equal earnings. The delivery boy’s system was converting into an apprenticeship system
wherein new recruits were trained for at least two to three years on a fixed remuneration before
they became full time dabbawala’s. By 2012, more than 5,000 dabbawala’s worked under aegis
of the trust. Together they delivered about 200,000 lunches daily in Mumbai. They served a total
area that covered approximately Rs 380 million per annum. Given the two-way route for each
dabba, the number of deliveries worked out to more than 350,000 per day. Despite the sheer
number of daily deliveries, the failure rate reported by the media numbered one in two months,
or one in every 15 million deliveries


The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association is a streamlined 120-year-old
organization with 4,500 semi-literate members providing a quality door-to-door service to a large
and loyal customer base.The Trust was responsible for managing the overall meal delivery
system. it worked in close co-ordination with the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, a
forum that provided opportunities for social interactions among the dabbawala’s and the
Dakkhan Mavle Sahakari Patpedhi, a credit union that catered to the financial needs of individual
dabbawala’s by providing personal loans. Given its charitable trust status, the Trust was also
involved in community initiatives by providing free food and accommodation to low-income
families at some pilgrimages centers.

The Trust had a three-tier structure Executive Committee, Mukadams and dabbawala’s.
Under this structure, the basic operating unit was the team. Each team, which comprised between
five and eight dabbawala’s, was headed by a Mukadam. Having risen from the ranks of the
dabbawala’s, a Mukadam’s primary daily responsibility involved the sorting of the dabba’s.
However, as team leader the Mukadam performed several administrative tasks that included
maintaining records of client payments, arbitrating disputes between dabbawala’s and
customers, and apprentice training. The Mukadam was also in charge of acquiring new clients
for the team and managing customer satisfaction. New customers purchased their dabba’s from

the dabbawala’s when service was commenced. Dabbas were typically replaced at cost to the
customer once every two years.

Seven to eight Mukadams aggregated their efforts and constituted a profit centre,
eachprofit centre was referred to as a “group.” There were about 120 groups in total. While each
group was managed autonomously, its members stepped in without hesitation to help other
groups in dealing with emergencies such as dabbawala absenteeism. Monthly group maintenance
costs totalled Rs.35000/, covering the maintenance of the bicycles, push carts and wooden boxes
the dabbawala’s used in their daily deliveries. The 13 members of the Executive Committee,
which was elected by the general body every 5 years, coordinated the activities of the various
work groups. The Committee, which undertook all major decisions for the trust and worked on
the principles specified in the Cooperative Societies Act, met on the 15th of each month.
Operational issues typically dominated each meeting’s agenda. Examples of such issues included
disputes with the Mumbai city railways over dabbawala’s not carrying their monthl passes or the
ID issued to them by the Trust, and with the city police when dabbawala’s parked their push
carts or bicycles where parking was not permitted. Annually there were few reports of lost or
stolen dabba’s. In such instances clients were reimbursed by the individual dabbawala’s or given
a free dabba.


The dabbawala network operates so efficiently and punctually owing to one simple
reason The Railways. The local trains of Mumbai city cover approximately 60-70 kilometres.
This distance is covered by hundreds of trains that operate at a frequency of a train departing
every three minutes. This feature of the local trains leads to over 90% the city's population
depending upon this mode of transport. A local train is rarely ever delayed in its journey, thus,
it enables millions of commuters to be punctual in reaching their offices and homes every day
and in all conditions, and this is the main reason why the dabbawala’s actually operate in this
city and not any other. In order to deliver over 2,00,000 tiffins every day, the dabbawala’s can
rely only on this mode of transport, a person can reach from one end of the city (Mira Road) to
the other end (Churchgate) in just under an hour and a half! Thus, it is rightly said that if the
dabbawala’s are the foodline of the city of Mumbai, then the local trains are the lifelines of the
city. The entire dabbawala system works on a military discipline based on a shared agenda and
a common protocol. The workforce is not even basically educated and there is no paperwork

The two essences are the LOCAL TRAIN and INFORMATION, the system is
information rich in nature, the coding system enables all the 'magic' with which all
dabbawala’s function, Again, it is ‘Centralized planning and decentralized

 The dabbawala’s are spread over the entire city and hence, all three lines of the local train
are utilized by them, Western, Central and Harbour Lines.
 The main stations include Dombivili, Andheri, Dadar, Kurla, Grant Road, Churchgate
and C.S.T. these are also the major sorting areas for the dabbawala’s.
 Each station may have approximately 4-8 groups depending on the density of population
and demand. E.G. there can be 15-20 groups at Churchgate and just 5-6 groups at stations
like Khar and Vile Parle.
 The various modes of transport that can be used by the dabbawala’s in their whole
network will mainly include trains, bicycles, handcarts and of course, on foot,
 Time is the principle factor in this system. If there is any delay of even a few minutes,
the train will be missed by the dabbawala’s and the system will be disrupted because of
him. Hence, planning for contingency is also very important on part of the dabbawala.
Punctuality is therefore of prime Importance. Rarely has it been that the Tiffin doesn't
reach the owner's desk at lunchtime.
 The city's geographical pattern helps. Most of Mumbai's Office-goers live in the suburbs
and work downtown and there arc local trains connecting two, points - which form hubs
for hub-and-spoke sub-networks. Each Tiffin is at least handled by 4-5 different
dabbawala’s in the entire process


BDO operations is confined to Bombay, the commercial capital of India. BDO services
include collection, transportation and delivery of lunch boxes from home to office location in
the morning. In the evening the (empty) lunch boxes are moved in the reverse direction. This
service is aimed at the middle income group families, small traders and owner managers. BDO
operates 25 days a month, with a one week pre announced holiday in a year.

The need for BDO service is driven by clear preference to home food by its customers.
Many target customers find food available in their work area as not suitable for their life style.
Often, they find it expensive too. In addition, a typical BDO customer commutes about 100 kms

a day between his home and work place. They usually leave their home early morning to work.
At such a time, lunch may not be ready.

The BDO service is priced at Rs. 500 per lunch box per month (was Rs.150-300 till
recently). Depending on specific customer requirements customized offering (large lunch box,
special diet requirements etc. are charged differently. Most commercial establishments are
situated in South Bombay. The middle income residential areas are in North Bombay.
Accordingly, the lunch box traffic movement is predominantly uni-directional (North to South
in the morning and vice versa in the evening).

BDO started its operation with a modest beginning in 1890 by a group of people (same
ethnic background) from Pune to support their livelihood in Bombay. The system has been
operational for (about) 120 years without any interruption. As of 2012, BDO handled 400,000
transactions a day (200,000 boxes), employed 5000 people and earned Rs. 360 million every

BDO reported less than six errors in 13 million transactions. They work for six days a
week. There is no disruption to work (as long as the Bombay Sub-urban rail network is
functional). BDO not only provides clean home food but it also delivers it safe against theft and


BDO is organized as a co-operative movement. The basic entity is a Dabbawala. A set of
Dabbawala's would form a team. Several teams would form a group. Several groups (120)
constitute the entire organization.

The BDO is designed to collect, transport and distribute lunch boxes to its customer
routinely (every day) for 25 (working) days in a month. The specific details are described below.

The fundamental unit of organization is a Dabbawala. There are 5000 of them in the
system. Each Dabbawala is assigned (a set of) upto 30 customers in a specific geographical area.
Each Dabbawala visits a pre-assigned and fixed route and carries the lunch boxes and brings it
on his head to the nearest railway station.

Their primary job is to visit the pre-assigned set of household under their area of
operation. Usually this visit is made between 8.30 and 9.00 a.m. in the morning. Each Dabbawala
is in-charge of about 30 lunch boxes. They either walk or travel on bicycle to collect the lunch

boxes. The household is expected to keep the lunch box ready when the Dabbawala reports for
collection. For some reason, if the lunch box is not ready, the Dabbawala would leave for
the next destination. After collecting approximately 30 such lunch boxes, the lunch boxes are
brought to the nearest sub-urban railway station for sorting and onward transportation.

Upto 8 Dabbawalas are organized as a team. Usually, more than one team operates out
of a collection railway station. Upto 8 teams form a group. There are 120 groups in the system.
The groups are responsible for entire operations (customer care, quality, complaint management,
manpower recruitment, compensation, discipline, scheduling of work, collection, accounts
receivables and revenue management). The teams are responsible for operational execution.

At the originating railway station a team of designated Dabbawalas would sort the lunch
boxes according to their destination. The sorting process is facilitated by a detailed and elaborate
codification system. (The details of the codification would be described later). The essence of
the codification system is it clearly identifies the origin of the lunch box, the associated collection
team member, the destination, the corresponding delivery team member, at the delivery location,
destination, location building identification and floor number.

Based on codes assigned to individual boxes, they are sorted for a origin to hub transfer
by using the Bombay metropolitan rail network. At the destination a group of members would
receive the Lunch box, resort the lunch boxes based on destination (building, floor and location).
Subsequently, the assigned members would move the lunch boxes to the respective location
physically and leave the lunch boxes at the appropriate consumer location or floor. The lunch
boxes are accompanied by team members from collection location to final destination. As the
train moves towards central Bombay more and more lunch boxes and team members join the

The origin-hub transfer is facilitated by greater frequency of sub-urban trains (one in a

minute). The lunch boxes arrive at destination railway stations by 11.30 a.m. The subsequent
delivery is completed before 1.00 p.m. After the delivery the members hang around (gossip, play
card, rest, eat their own lunch) in public parks in central Bombay near the destination areas. By
3.30 p.m. they return to the offices and buildings where they left the boxes and collect the empty
boxes for their return journey.

Between 12.30 p.m. and 3.30 p.m, the customers reach their lunch boxes left in their
respective floor, eat their lunch and return the empty box to the location from where it was
collected by them.

All the empty lunch boxes are assembled at the destination railway location, resorted to
the respective origin location, placed on standard carts and transferred to the respective hub or
individual stations by the designated members.

The carts are unloaded at the appropriate (Bombay) sub-urban train station and taken to
the individual households by the same member who collected them in the morning. After this
transaction, the member's responsibility is over and he retires for the day.

The members of BDO should be capable for carrying a load of 100 kgs. manually on
their head and walk 2.5 kms. effortlessly. The work hours are between 8.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.
with an appropriate rest period of 21/2 hours. They travel in the train along with lunch boxes
every day. Each member would have a railway pass which allows him to make unlimited number
of trips on designated routes.

The sorting and loading operations need care and they are time bound. They are carried
out in areas which are public places. These locations are usually congested. The origin-hub

transfer normally happens in designated carts. These carts are loaded in pre-determined
compartments in the beginning or at the end of the train.

So Borivali
g Kurla



The suburbs kept going further and the patrons list kept getting longer. More and more carriers
were pressed into service and soon, there was a clash in functioning styles of various groups.
The number of tiffins increased for the dabbawala’s as the days passed on. As every Tiffin box
had to be carried to and fro mapping each box to its carrier was crucial or else it would lead to
chaos. For this the dabbawala’s started tying strings or wires or threads to their boxes. But soon
these methods were inadequate as the number of tiffins grew exceptionally. Thus the need for a
new form of coding came up, which could be understood by the illiterate dabbawala’s and was

Hence, in the 1970’s a senior member in Raghunath Medge’s family decided to

implement a new system where all the box codes and markings were uniform for the
dabbawala’s. This system would cater to any number of tiffins no matter the growth in additions.
This was an ingenious creation. It served as a common code for the dabbawala’s which was easy
to decipher.

That was the most important thing to remember while creating the codes. The
Dabbawala’s, being illiterate should be able to understand it and explain it with ease to new
comers and outsiders. This coding system eventually stood the test of time and proved extensible.
With coding in place, there was enough scope to factor in new developments like adding new
dabbawala’s or new office blocks or new sources and destinations. The new system depends on
common protocols, a typical Indian approach to versatile distribution

Each tiff in containing the food has, number of codes in alphabets and numbers on its top which
identify the following:

 The code allotted to each dabbawala in a group that picks up the Tiffin form a particular
area or suburb.
 The code of the origin station, which is usually one of the suburbs on western, central or
harbour lines.
 The code for destination, which is Churchgate, CST or any other commercial area.
 The code of the dabbawala in the destination area who handles the Tiffin there
 The code for the location or office building in the destination area
 The floor or the room in that building

Besides these that are displays on the top of the dabba there is also a difference in the
colour of paints or chalk that they use to write the codes. Different groups will have different
colour cod written on the top of the dabba so that the Tiffin belonging to a group remains distinct.
This is necessary because there is usually more than just one group present at each station. The
destination codes will be the same for all groups at the same station. This makes it difficult to
distinguish their tiffins, so the simplest way of bringing the distinctions that is required is by
coding with different colours. This is a simple and easy way of differentiating the codes which
is also easy to understand for the illiterate dabbawala’s. The maximum number of colour used in
this system is 7.

Incidentally each group of dabbawala’s must also carry coloured pencils or chalks so that
they can write the codes if they have been erased or are difficult to interpret. Obviously, each
and every dabbawala must know the coding system very well and must also know all the dabba’s
in his group with respect to the origin and destination.

Let, us know look at a few examples of these codes on the tiffins to better understand the system
and what it all denotes

We can now separate each element that is written on the Tiffin cover or top for
understanding what it means. Let us follow the pattern anti-clockwise: -

VP – The first thing on the Tiffin is the code for the originating station. This is the station
from where the dabbawala picks up the Tiffin in the morning. In this case, VP denotes Vile Parle.
The area under this station will include Juhu and also J.V.P.D scheme since this is the only

station, which is nearest. Even if the dabbawala goes to the most interior parts like in Juhu, it
will not be mentioned in the coding simply because the dabbawala’s are just concerned about
the respective railway stations.

E – This is the code for the dabbawala who is picking up the Tiffin from its origin
or home. In this case, the dabbawala with the code of ‘E’ will be a part of the group distinguished
by the colour code ‘RED’. In many instances, the code will be the initial of the name of the
dabbawala. This is one of the elements that can be changed during the course of time if the
dabbawala for that particular customer changes.

3 – This is the code for the destination area. This may not necessarily be restricted to
astation only. For instance, the Churchgate is allotted number codes from 1-10. Number 11 is
allotted to marine lines, 12 to Charni road and so on. In this example, the number 3 is allotted to
the area between flora fountain and cross Maidan area. Other prime locations would include
Nariman Point, stock exchange, Ballard pier, RBI etc.

9 – This is the code number for the dabbawala who delivers the Tiffin to the
destination office from Churchgate station. This is the dabbawala who is responsible for
delivering it to the respective office and picking it up after the lunch hours. He is a part of another
group from the one he worked with at the originating station. Thus, in most cases, each
dabbawala will be a part of more than one group for sure, one at the origin and one at the

AI - This code denotes the exact location or more likely, the building’s initial in the
area that falls under Churchgate station. In this case, it is Air India building. AI being the
initial for the building is unique and therefore, creates no confusion whatsoever for the
dabbawala’s. Office buildings around southern Mumbai are very popular and hence, easy to
comprehend when given in codes. Other examples would be ‘M’ for Mittal Towers,‘R’ for RBI,
‘MC’ for Maker Chambers and so on.

12 – finally, the last code among the three codes that form the right side of the top
of the dabba is the floor on the building (Air India) or the room number in case of buildings
with large number of rooms on each floor. Such an example would be Stock Exchange, RBI and
BMC etc. Let us take a second example with different locations so we can exactly figure out how
to comprehend the coding system.

GH – This again denotes the originating station code, which in this case is
Ghatkoper that is central line suburb. A dabbawala will not usually work in two different
groups or switch groups based in central region to Western suburbs. Of course, a dabbawala, in
all possibility can pick up Tiffin from a central suburb but deliver it to an office based in the
western lines and vice versa. In this case, the origin is from a central suburb that is Ghatkopar.

D- In this case, the dabbawala, who picks up the Tiffin from Ghatkopar area and
assembles with this group at the station, has a code ‘D’ as mentioned earlier, this could be his
initial or a random allotment.

13 – This code is for the destination station and in this case, it represents Grant
Road. This being a smaller station as per the area it encompasses, requires just one number for
its designation. Churchgate and C.S.T are the only ones that have so many numbers based on
locations under them.

2 – The first part of the right side codes is the code of the dabbawala at the
destination station. In this case, it is the dabbawala with code 2 who is responsible for delivering
it to the respective office and picking it up after the lunch hours.

P - This code denotes the exact location or more likely, the building’s initial in the
area that falls under Grant Road station. ‘P’ stands for the ‘Panchratna’, which is among
the most famous buildings in south Bombay as it is home to one of the largest diamond makers
offices in the country. It is an old building and the dabbawala’s have been providing services
over here ever since the city became a diamond exporter and trading hub.

9 – finally, the last code among the three codes that form the right side of the top of the
dabba is the floor on the building (Panchratna) or the room number.

Therefore, we can link the coding system and its function in the entire network process with fine
example by taking the network process of the second example of the coding system:

The sorting takes place at Ghatkopar station and the tiffins collected from the client’s
residences is kept with boxes that are bound for grant road station. This way it is easier to offload
them and dispatch them to the respective dabbawala who is responsible for deliveries at grant

At grant road station, the carrier whose number is ‘2’, picks up all the boxes that are
marked for him and proceeds. At Panchratna, he leaves the tiffins outside the lifts or outsides the

office on the 9th floor. During the lunch time, the client fetches the tiffins completes his lunch
and puts the empty tiffins back to the same place so that dabbawala can collect it easily. The
return journey follows the same route back.


ONWARD JOURNEY – 8:30- 10:34 am

The day for the dabbawala’s starts at 8:30 am, with collecting the dabba’s from the
various houses. People usually leave the dabba’s outside the door for them. In case they are late
the dabbawala’s have to urge them to hurry up, else if it gets late they have to leave if the clients’
Tiffin is not ready in time. He then picks up all the tiffins and meets the other dabbawala’s at the

The dabbawala picks up the Tiffin from his lot of houses in Santacruz and meets the
other group members at the designated spot at the station. This particular group of 10
dabbawala’s takes the 10:34 am Churchgate local train every day. Therefore, the dabbawala’s
have to make sure that they reach the platform for the sorting process at least by 10:15 am in
order to ensure a smooth flow of their networking throughout their daily routine, this period in

the morning that includes picking up the Tiffin’s and meeting at the designated spot on the station
is the most crucial part of the system. One-bit delay in this aspect will disrupt the whole system
and will lead to a chaotic situation. Therefore, the dabbawala’s have to collect the tiffins n time
and reach the station with enough time left for the sorting to take place before the train arrives.

SORTING - 10:15 – 10:34 am

The critical phase of the system is sorting. Sorting of all the tiffins according to their
destination station and arranging them into wooden crates takes 20-25 minutes! The aim of the
process is to segregate the tiffins and differentiate them as per the destination of each of them.
The tiffins are then handed to different dabbawala’s at the destinationstation and sorting
makes it easier to identify each group of tiffins and less time consuming for the respective
dabbawala. The sorting makes the entire process error free. The process of sorting is similar to
that of a post office where letters are segregated according to their destinations. Since each Tiffin
exchanges many hands, each of the lids of the tiffins is marked with a colored code indicating
the originating station, destinationand building with the floor number. The coding is the secret
behind the efficient working of the system and that’s why the network is ‘Information rich’. This
is a unique feature as it requires no documentation or record keeping. There is no communication
between the 2 groups, but just coordination among them because the whole blueprint is pre-
decided by the dabbawala’s themselves

The Mukadam plays a key role here to ensure smooth working and coordination, his
responsibility is to know all the tiffins his group carries. The responsibility of the Mukadam is
to the extent that he has to know all the tiffins that his group carries. Therefore, he must be able
to recognize these Tiffin’s even if the codes on them arebarely visible. Also, if any member of
the group abstains from his duty for a particularday for some reason, then it is the responsibility
of the Mukadam to ensure that all the dabba’s that the absentee was responsible for, are duly
picked up and delivered back on time. Hence, we see that the Mukadam plays a critical role in
this stage of sorting and allocating jobs

The dabba’s are collected, sorted out and sent to their destinations based on a numerical
and alphabetical code. Every station has a numerical code and each place has an alphabetical
code. The Tiffin carries the code of the source and the destination. The codes help identify Tiffin
owners. Very simple system of sorting exists with this Dabbawala Network. Every Tiffin-carrier
has the mark of a circle or a flower of a specific colour and a digital identity number. Take this
Tiffin Mark for Example-K-BO-10-19/A/15. K is the identity letter of the dabbawala. BO means

Borivali i.e. the area from where the Tiffin is to be collected... The figure of 10 refers to Nariman
point area. 19/A/15 refers to the 19th Building and the 15th floor in Nariman point area where
the Tiffin is to be delivered.

JOURNEY TIME – 10:34 to 11:20 am

The time period between 10:34 and 11:20 is the journey time for the dabbawala’s. They
load the wooden cart filled with tiffins into the luggage or goods compartment of the train.
Generally, they try to occupy the last compartment as this helps them to avoid the rush at the
platforms and is easy to be located and conveniently situated once the trainarrives on the
platform. Mostly the commuters don’t get on this compartment as they are already filled with
crates and there is not enough room. This is a common understanding among daily commuters
and dabbawala’s. In any case the platform is filled with people and dabbawala’s have to unload
the crates on the platform, they start a series of loud verbal comments warning everyone to make
way of the unloading. The unloading of this particular group takes place at Dadar, Lower Parel,
Grant road and finally Churchgate etc. finally just six out of total 10 dabbawala’s get off at
Churchgate. There are also others joining into the group from the station as they have common
destination points.

The allocation of manpower at each station depends on the number of tiffins that have to
be delivered in a particular area. E.g. if 150 tiffins are to be delivered in Grant Road, 4people are
assigned to the station. This is done in keeping in the mind that one person cannot carry more
than 35 dabba’s. They will also be assigned specific codes which are written on the top of the
Tiffin. This 4 dabbawala’s can be from any groups and irrespective of any station. Their job is
now to deliver these 150 Tiffin’s irrespective of which group they belong to. If the number of
Tiffin’s that are to be delivered in an area like Nariman point, is large then the number of people
allocated goes up. Within that area, if one location let’s say, Mittal towers, has a huge number
of Tiffin’s have to be delivered then this area number of the location number remains the same
and tiffins are differentiated on basis of colour.


At this stage the unloading takes place at Churchgate and our destination station. In our
example in it will be Churchgate. Here, the rearrangement of Tiffin’s takes place as per the
destination area and destination building in Churchgate. Dabbawala’s have to be dispatched
accordingly and the dabba’s are to be delivered in large quantities at times to areas like Nariman

Point, RBI and Stock Exchange. If the number of Tiffin’s that are to be delivered in an area like
Nariman Point (Which is very large considering the density of offices), then the number of
dabbawala’s to be allotted to the area increases. Now, within that area, if one location, like, Mittal
Towers has a huge number of Tiffin’s to be delivered then this “area of number” or “location
number” remains the same and the dabba’s have to be differentiated according to the basis of
colour. To sum up the delivery process at the destination centers, each dabbawala looks for a
particular three-character code written on right hand side of the cap of the Tiffin. The dabbawala
concentrates only on the dabba’s that he has to deliver from Churchgate. He may not have in
most cases, picked up his Tiffin’s from the originating stations; he has been allotted these dabba’s
only at Churchgate. This kind of specialization makes the entire system efficient and error free.

The entire sorting process takes place outside Churchgate station or in the lanes around
the station. Here, different groups arrange their dabba’s in order of their destination areasand
buildings. The main area around Churchgate includes Nariman point, RBI, StockExchange,
Ballard Pier, and world trade center. There are around thirty groups itself at Churchgate station
dispatching their respective tiffins in the area. In particular area with high density of customers
a special crate is dedicated to that area. This crate carries 150 Tiffin’s and is driven by 3-4

A unique feature of the system is that bigger buildings with large office densities, like in
Nariman point, or the stock exchange building itself, an elevator is especially reserved for the
dabbawala’s during the lunch time. Usually these elevators have queues throughout the day as
the offices are extremely busy and hence, in order to provide convenience and quick delivery
without queues. The dabbawala’s have a special elevator reserved for themselves onto which
others cannot board. In some cases, they also leave the Tiffin’s in the canteen that is common to
the whole building and hence the respective owners can simply pick up theirs. This is also a
feature seen in schools where the dabbawala’s deliver.

In other cases, like at Mittal Cambers the dabbawala’s leave the Tiffin’s outside the
respective offices. The peon comes and gives them to the respective clients in their offices.
Incidentally, even the peons are good at recognizing the Tiffin’s as to whom they belong to. So,
in this process, the dabbawala’s save a lot of time by cutting short the delivery process.

Thereafter, the dabbawala’s take a break and have their own lunch which is usually their
Tiffin’s kept along with the others in the crate with special markings. Different groups have their
lunch at different locations. It is generally on the footpath or some benches on the roadside. This

break is usually of 45-60 minutes in duration. Till then, the customers must finish having their
lunch and keep the dabba’s outside for the dabbawala to collect.

COLLECTION PROCESS - 1:15 to 2:00 pm

Here on begins the collection process where the dabbawala have to pick up the Tiffin’s
from the offices where they had delivered almost an hour ago. The dabbawala’s are the same in
this case. The one who delivers it to the office will be the same one who collects it. Most of the
time, the dabbawala will collect al dabba’s from all the offices situated on the same floor and
will leave them in the corridor.

Then, he goes and collects all dabba’s from various floors and gets them to the base level.
Finally, he loads them onto the crate.

This is actually the only risky point in the entire network system. This is because there
is a risk of theft when the dabbawala leaves the Tiffin’s outside the corridor. The only solution
to this is, to have another dabbawala securing the dabba’s while the other one goes and collects
the remaining. This is related to a personal experience and hence amention of this incident is
critical in analyzing the mechanism of the system. By complaints and suggestions from
customers, the dabbawala’s can actually bring some improvements in the system such as the one
mentioned. A dabbawala who can secure the procured Tiffin’s can greatly help in reducing thefts.

RETURN JOURNEY – 2:00 to 2:30 pm

After the collection is over, the dabbawala’s meet the remaining group members at a
designated spot and the first assortment on the return journey takes place. The groupmembers
meet with their respective crates and the segregation as per the destinationsuburbs takes place.
The group departs for the station and all groups meet there for a common sorting process. The
crates are arranged in a line and each dabbawala picks up the tiffins that belong to his group at
the destination centre (the originating centre). This is not the final sorting and therefore, the
individual members of the destination group have to just identify the boxes and put them into
the crates.

One important thing to note is that a particular dabbawala need not operate in the same
group throughout the day. He will, in most cases operate with 2 different groups. One at the
originating station (Santacruz) and one at the destination station (Churchgate). Thecoordination
is equally important in either groups and there is total unity among them.

After sorting in various crates they depart in their respective train, which again are pre-
decided and is part of their daily routine. This part of the journey is more relaxed as they are not
under the pressure of timely delivery as in the mornings. They lighten up the moment by joking
around and singing, which eases their stress and develops a strong bond in the group.

TRAIN JOURNEY – 2:48 - 3:30 pm

This again, is the return journey by train where the group finally meets up after the day’s
routine of dispatching and collecting from various destination offices. The group members from
Marine Lines, Grant Road and Dadar board the designated compartments and finally, they arrive
at Santacruz station with the same dabba’s that they had started off with in the morning.

Usually, since it is more of a pleasant journey compared to the earlier part of the day, the
dabbawala’s lighten up the moment by merry making, joking around and singing, whicheases
their stress and develops a strong bond among the group. Of course, other passengers also join
them in the merry making at times and hence, these dabbawala’s have created an impression
upon other passengers of being hardworking, dedicated and joyous people.

THE FINAL JOURNEY OF THE DAY – 3:30 to 4:00 pm

This is the stage where the final sorting and dispatch takes place. The group meets up at
Santacruz station and they finally sort out the Tiffin’s as per the destination area. This is the
easiest process because of the limited quantity of tiffins that gets off the trains with them; it is
simpler to understand which Tiffin belongs to whom. The dabbawala’s take out the respective
tiffins from the crates and either carry 10-15 of them physically on themselves or load them onto
the crates till they reach their cycles. Then each of them departs on their way with the same
dabba’s that he took in the morning and delivers them to their respective houses.

This delivery process takes roughly 30-45 minutes depending on the distance that the
dabbawala will have to cover. Thus, the entire network system ends with the delivery of the
tiffins back to the customer’s origin point at the precise time every day. The customer is satisfied
with timely delivery of home food and the dabba back to the origin.

There is still one more important and unique aspect to this system and that is the
individual dabbawala. This dabbawala doesn’t operate in any group. He picks up the dabba
himself in the morning and travels himself in the morning and travels to the various destinations
himself delivering them to the destination offices, collects them again and delivers them back to

the origination home. This is a rare case but it is a laudable effort that the dabbawala puts in just
to earn a meagre livelihood. A real example of this kind of a dabbawala can be cited here. This
particular dabbawala travels from Ghatkoper to Cuffe parade and back every day!!! It is simply
unbelievable that a person can do so much every day and still manage efficiency with

He operates on an 8 am to 8 pm shift. But he doesn’t have an option of taking the train

too at any point because there are always tiffins at various points at various suburbs en route.
For example, there are 4 tiffins from Parel to Churchgate between which he could’ve easily taken
the train by delegating his task of collection to another dabbawala. But then, he will lose his
customers to that dabbawala then because it will be that second dabbawala who is putting all the
efforts and hence, he cannot afford to lose customers because he would be hurting his own
income. He cannot lose out on his business which is earned with extreme hard work. Therefore,
this system of going individual as a dabbawala instead of a group is for those who prefer to put
in more hard work just to earn that bit of extra income.

The disadvantages in this system are:

• The dabbawala’s entire scheduling and system will be disrupted if any customer causes
a delay in giving the dabba to him.

• And secondly, if the dabbawala falls ill or takes leave due to any reason, there won’t be
anyone to substitute his place and therefore, no backup. The customers will be frustrated and
will switch over to another dabbawala if this one has a habit of abstaining. That would be a great
loss to the dabbawala and hence, his health also needs to be maintained. Even more than any
other dabbawala who are working in groups. This is rather difficult considering the rigorous
working and the long hours involved.

As it is apparent enough, there is hardly any contact between the client and the dabbawala during
each day. The dabbawala meets the client in his office only on the first day of delivery to verify
the address and to show the spot where the Tiffin will be kept daily. The system has been honed
to such perfection that many dabbawala’s carry out the entire operation with the help of just the
1st code, which is absolutely reversed. Evidently, this system is tailor-made specifically for a
city like Mumbai.


Competitive Infrastructu Managemen Process

Core values
ness re t Practices Enablers
• Large scale • Discipline • Linear • More than • Co-
operation • Providing topography one group operative
• Formidable food • Sub-urban in a customer
entry (higher rail location • Flexible
barrier order network (Internal train s
• Powerful objective) • Subsidized Competitio chedule
Brand • Dignity of Transportat n) • Supportive
• Uninterrup Labour ion • Derisking publi
ted Legacy • Fixed one • Wide reach • Redundanc • Delivery at
week and y on route floor level
holiday in a coverage assignment (destinatio
year n)
• Liberal
time spe
cifi cations

Need for
Resources Structure System Performance
• Members • Member, •Codification • Preference • Negligible
• Same ethnic team and (origin, to home food error (six
group group destination) • Long sigma)
• Modular and •Mix of work commuting • Inexpensive
• Apprentices and leisure
hip scalable distances pricing
structure •Equal
compensation • Overstretche • Reasonable
• Co-operative •Optimal Mix of
d public compensatio
organization transportation transport n to
economics system members
•Centralized • Early
planning departure
•Decentralized from home


Six sigma is a disciplined data-driven approach to delivering very high levels of
customer satisfaction for maximizing and sustaining business success. Six sigma also denotes
a specific performance level. A six sigma process or transaction produces extremely few defects
- 3.45 defects per million opportunities (99.99965% defect-free). A defect is anything that results
in customer dissatisfaction. Customer satisfaction is the goal of six sigma. Six sigma can be
deployed to improve the performance of all human work-processes, manufacturing and

The Dabbawalas of Mumbai have received international acclaim for their defect-free
handling of lunch boxes for clients. Forbes magazine has rated their performance on par with
Motorola’s, the pioneer of Six Sigma. From a six sigma perspective, the Dabbawalas must
contend with two CTQ’s (critical-to-quality parameters):

(1) Lunch boxes must be delivered on time, and

(2) Recipients must receive their own lunch boxes and not someone else’s.

In today's world of six sigma quality standard & super technologies for supply chain
management and logistical management it is a miracle that the failure or mistake in the service
of dabbawalas is 1 in 16 million end deliveries that also due to accidents or acts of God and not
human failure despite the fact that human beings are everything in this service. The remarkable
performance of Dabbawalas for over hundred years is especially commendable since the workers
are from the villages and are not even high school graduates and they are literates only to the
level of understanding alphabets. Yet they are the best in time management, customer care and
quality of service. The corporate world is wonderstruck as to how such a high level of quality
has been achieved without any sophisticated formal management system in place. But the irony
is that the dabbawalas don't even understand terms such as Six Sigma quality or supply chain

The Unique Features of the Dabbawalas:

 Zero % - Fuel
 Zero % - Investment.
 Zero % - Modern Technology.
 Zero % - No Strike Record till Date.
 99.99% - Performance.
 100% - Customer Satisfaction.

What is unique about this system is that though most of the tiffin-carriers are illiterate
they are the ultimate natural followers of strategies like Just-in-Time and Supply Chain
Management-strategies which they have never learnt in any formal school of management. The
dabbawalas may be semi-literate, but their efficient delivery and time management skills would
shame some professionally managed corporations.

Secondly, this 115-year-old organization has not seen any labor problems till date, and
has survived in face of the assault of five-star hotels, fast food frenzy, and over-the-counter

With an average age of 52 years, about 5,000 dabbawalas criss-cross the city using the
local train network as the only technology and complete the last mile connectivity using bicycles.
Impressively, their success is despite the dabba carrying no `From Address' and each tiffin box
changing hands at least five times. The service is uninterrupted even on the days of extreme
weather, such as Mumbai's characteristic monsoons.

The BDO is known and recognized for its negligible number of transactional errors. We
now discuss in detail what is behind such an outstanding performance.

Flexible Infrastructure: The back bone of BDO is the higher frequency of sub-urban train
services. There is a train service virtually every minute. The entire operational area of BDO is
serviced by the well-developed railway infrastructure. Further, the train services are
inexpensively priced.

Customer Co-operation: The members of the co-operative do not wait for lunch boxes, if they
are not ready when they arrive for collection at residences. The household understands the need
to be punctual to support the functioning of BDO and extend appropriate co-operation.

Appropriate Network Structure: The logistics network of BDO is a combination of milkman

route, hub-hub transfer, and hub and spoke distribution. There is perfect symmetry in the reverse
logistics operation.

Codification system: The codification system is the core to material flow and its tracking in the
system. It is home grown, ad hoc but serves adequately the purpose for which it is designed. It
is a combination of alphabeti cs, symbols and colour. It is unique to BDO. The codification is a
combination of systems approach and personalized information available to members. It is
specific to the extent required.

Topography: The BDO has evolved in the context of Bombay city. The operational area
topography is linear. At the origination it is dispersed over a large area. At the destination it is
concentrated on a smaller geographical area. The traffic pattern is characterized by low volume
spread over larger area to high volume spread over small area.

Process Capability: The total time required from collection to delivery is about 3 hours. End to
end (conservative) travel time - 1.30 hrs. Travel time to the nearest railway station at the origin
30 mts. sorting and material handling etc. - 30 mts. and final dispatch - 30 mts. All this adds up
to 3 hours. However, the time available for end-end delivery is at least 4 hours. Thus the BDO
process is inherently capable of meeting customer expectations and specifications. Further, the
delivery of the lunch boxes is consolidated at the floor level at the consumer location. In a place
like Bombay, this saves significant time, energy and possible complications. The customers also
participate in the last step of the (lunch box) delivery process. Further, it makes no difference to
the customer (on time dimension) as long as the delivery is made before 1300 hrs.

Transport economics: The public infrastructure (sub-urban rail network) is used to deliver
lunch boxes. This keeps the cost low, and hence affordable price to consumers. Lower price
induces volume and scale economics. Depending on the need (at the origin and destination
locations) the allocation of manpower is dynamic and flexible. There are more members to
handle large volume at destination. At collection centers it is more of spread and appropriate
volume and member ownership. Every customer location is identified with a team member. It is
his (members) responsibility to collect lunch boxes and return empty boxes back home. The
codification system incorporates this specific need. Actually the BDO assigns specific collection
routes to individual members.

Redundancy: Each route (collection) is assigned to an individual member. Often, this

information on collection route is known to every other member in the team. Should there be a
need to substitute a member on collection route it can be done effortlessly, without affecting the
collection process and its accuracy

Coordination: The responsibility to collect, transport and deliver lunch boxes is at the individual
member level. There are no managers or supervisors in the system. Every member is motivated,
trained, disciplined and empowered to do his job to the best of his ability.

Structure: The structure is decentralized. The model is scalable (on volume). It is a three tier
structure, co-operative organization. The basic units are individuals, teams and groups. There are
in all 120 business units.

Compensation: Compensation in a group is same to every member irrespective of work load

and responsibility.

Management Practices: The BDO provides illustration of several well-known world class
business practices. It has all the salient features of a brilliant business strategy. We first discuss
briefly the elegant management practices and then outline the business strategy.

Structure and Organization: The BDO is organized as a co-operative structure to symbolize

equality and fairness. The three tier structure is readily scalable based on business opportunity
and volume. It eminently suits the attention needed at specific territories (group level). It ensures
attention to detail and decentralization (at optimal resource deployment) at the team level. The
team is nothing but a confederation of members. Each member is associated with a route. In this
sense, the revenue opportunity is well integrated with the organization structure. The scale and

scope economics are managed respectively by the teams and groups. The present structure is an
optimal way of delivering centralized planning and decentralized execution of business services.

Codification System: This pragmatic codification system ensures complete traceability of lunch
boxes in the system. It enables material flow and tracking of individual boxes by detailed
information. It is inexpensive, less elegant, yet detailed enough to support operations. It
integrates the knowledge and information of individual members on route, origin, handling
agent, destination address etc. In a sense it is a variation of an online transaction processing
system to identify and track material in (such) a large system.

HR Practices: The BDO is built on (members') pride in work. The members do not consider
themselves as logistics (operation) providers. They consider their job is to provide food to their
customers. This is source of pride for them. It is a great motivator to improve and sustain their
performance. The members belong to a homogeneous (ethnic) group. There is a well-developed
apprenticeship program.

Compensation: The compensation is same at the group level. Equal work equal pay. There is
no subsidy since group is a homogeneous and logically a differentiating entity.

Redundancy: The team members have slack capacity. Substitutability among members in a
team is easy. Flexible manpower deployment at the destination ensures operational accuracy.
More than one team operating in an originating train station ensures internal competition and
operational efficiency.

Fun and Work Mix: After delivery of lunch boxes, the members break away from work to
enjoy their leisure time. There is a one week forced holiday every year to visit their (member)
villages. Mutual respect for individuals and empowerment are reinforcing features. Members are
expected to conduct themselves to earn respect from public. They were uniform while at work.

Transportation Economics: BDO is an example of a judicious mix of transportation

economics. At the collection point it is a milk man route structure. This is supported by a hub-
hub transfer to handle large volume at reduced operational cost. At the destination, it is hub to
spoke to ensure response time and handle volume flexibility. The rail infrastructure ensures
flexibility and lower cost of operation. Flexible manpower deployment and codification system
guarantee appropriate response time, smooth flow of information and material tracking in the

The BDO competitive strategy elements include identification of a long lasting customer
segment or need, effective use of public infrastructure, standardized operating procedures,
partnership with customer, motivated and empowered employees and an appropriate material
flow tracking system. A brief detail of these elements follow.

Perpetual Need: BDO caters to the basic yet perpetual demand of (serving) delivering home
prepared (ethnic) food to Indian middle income executives working in Bombay. The need is
more acute because of long commuting time, congested traffic conditions and long travel
distances. This market segment would exist for long time to come. The only erosion to this
market size or need is from changing food habits of Indian middle income group executives.
While this is a reality, the change is surely expected to be slow. Therefore, in the immediate
future, BDO is assured of its business so long as it can meet customer expectations on delivery
and price (service charges).

Value Pricing: The core to BDO's operational efficiency is the well managed Bombay metro
rail network. On any scale of comparison, for its wider reach and frequency of operations, the
members of BDO use the rail network for a nominal price. The 5000 members are paid a
reasonable compensation. The entire set of operations (BDO) are manual. All these contribute
to lower operational cost and hence a reasonable price (or value pricing) to the consumers.
Complemented by a large customer base, satisfied customers and an ever increasing working
class population at Bombay, this business model is a passport to perpetual growth.

Standard Operating Procedures: BDO over a period of time has evolved as an outstanding
example of standard operating procedure. There is no uncertainty in the delivery model at any
stage. The individual member's role is clearly articulated. The information flow to track material
(codification system) is perfect. Members are empowered in task execution. There is an element
of internal competition: multiple teams in the same geographical location are operational to
generate additional business volume. Fair business practices (equal compensation) and joy of
work, pride in activity, fun mixed with work break the monotoni city in the standard operating
procedure in BDO.

Partnership with stakeholders: There are three important stakeholder’s groups with whom
BDO enjoys an excellent relationship. The first set is its primary customers. They support BDO
in meeting no delay in delivering lunch boxes and accepting delivery at the floor level in the
destination locations. The members are delighted to work for BDO (supported by empowerment,

compensation and an economic activity for livelihood). The commuting public at large is tolerant
to the inconveniences caused to them by BDO in the already overcrowded, over stretched urban
transport system. Over a period of time, BDO has become an essential element of modern

Operational excellence: BDO has a remarkable and enviable quality record. This is a
combination of flexible infrastructure, adequate buffer in material handling, reasonable and
achievable service level specifications, elaborate and efficient codification system, self-
motivated and empowered employees, dynamic and flexible deployment of members to execute
a given task, adopting a variety and mix of transportation models, and commitment to work

Structure: BDO operating structure is elegant, appropriate and enhances its operational
excellence based business model. As discussed earlier the 3 tier structure ensures operational
details are delegated to the most appropriate level. The structure provides for redundancy in team
members and hence volume flexibility on lunch boxes handled by the system. The business
integration happens at the group level. Broadly each group is self-sufficient and has to manage
its own operational income, volume and hence profitability. Any other centralized structure to
supervise operations would have made the process inherently ineffective (expensive) and less
responsive to customer needs.

Performance measures: BDO performance measures are real time transactions based. As a
matter of fact, every transaction is monitored in terms of its collection, transportation, and
delivery. Revenue collection is periodic and systematic. Employee (member) productivity is
volume based. Compensation is equal, group based and is a function of revenue generated. Given
internal competition at the group level this model is self-corrective. Broadly there are no fixed
assets. Therefore, assets productivity is irrelevant in BDO. The performance of BDO is closely
linked to the near automation (standardization) of the process. There are inherent buffers to
manage and accommodate unanticipated risks in the system.

Customer focus: BDO is a service organization focused on customer expectation management.

The service is priced low to attract and retain relevant customer segment and base. The process
is capable enough in the context of assurances made to customers. The BDO has elevated the
purpose of their business to an opportunity to provide food (higher order objective than transport
logistics support to deliver lunch boxes). The discipline, empowerment, commitment to work of
members are all consequences of this higher order objective in meeting customer expectations.

Case Studies & References:

 Subrata N. Chakravarty and Nazneen Karmali, "Fast Food", Forbes Global, October 8,
 Ajay Kumar Chourasia and CSV Ratna, Dabbawalas: Foodline of Mumbai, ICFAI
Press, Hyderabad (ICFAI Case No. 804-020-1).
 Tanya Chaitanya, Thinking out of the box, Times News Network, February 8, 2004.
 Sanghamitra Chakraborty, India Inc's date with tiffinwallahs, Times News Network,
Saturday, September 21, 2002
 Dabbawalas of Mumbai (A), Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western
Ontario, Case No. 9B04D0111998.
 Dabbawalas await their date with Prince Charles, Afternoon Despatch & Courier,
October 30, 2003
 Dabbawalas — epitome of management skills, Times News Network, January 18,
 N. Ravichandran (2004), Logistics: The Bombay Dabbawala's Operations, Presentation
in INFORMS Meeting, Denver, Oct. 24-27, 2004.
 Sheela Raval, Soul Food, India Today, June 7, 2004
 Monirupa Shete, Tiffins are god's gift to the hungry, Times News Network, Monday,
July 26, 2004
 Gangaram Talekar and Raghunath Medge (2005), Six Sigma in Practice: Bombay
Dabbawala Operations, Invited Presentation in 37th Annual Convention of Operational
Research Society of India, Ahmedabad, January 8-11, 2005.
 The Amazing story of Mumbai Dabbawalas, By: Shailena Varma, Logistics Manager,


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