Every morning about 11.30, in the shadow of the extravagant Imperial Gothic folly that is Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, lunch is served.
Among the throngs arriving at the central railway station are the familiar white caps of the city’s dabbawalas; a few at first, then in growing numbers as the minutes pass and more trains arrive.
Balanced precariously in crates on their heads, or slung over shoulders in insulated bags, the dabbawalas take a midday meal to up to 200,000 workers daily, lovingly prepared by wives that morning and taken from home to desk, still piping hot.
Identical scenes take place at all Mumbai’s central railway stations. Using a complex but highly effective system of codes, the tiffin boxes – stacks of metal containers typically containing daal, vegetables, chapatis and rice – are taken from the suburbs to the city by an army of mostly semi-literate workers.
It is a delivery system without equal anywhere in the world. Most remarkable of all, the dabbawalas almost never fail.
Virtually unchanged since the system was first conceived under the British Raj over 120 years ago, the dabbawalas are these days held up as a textbook example of efficiency and organisation by admirers including the Harvard Business School, The Economist magazine and Prince Charles.
Despite monsoon floods, riots, terrorist bombs and the general chaos of Mumbai, lunch always gets to its man.
Barely one tiffin box in 1.6 million goes astray. In stark contrast, airlines expect to lose about 3.09 bags for every 3,000 passengers.
The dabbawalas easily qualify for the holy grail of quality control – the Six Sigma benchmark, first embraced by management guru Jack Welch in the 1990s and requiring a maximum of 3.4 defects per million, or a 99.99966 per cent success rate.
Now the dabbawalas are coming to Dubai. Not to bring lunch, but to present the secrets of their business model to academics, government bureaucrats and business leaders this morning at the Burj Al Arab.
Speaking at the two-day GCC Government Organisations Third and Fourth Line Leaders Development Conference, Arvind Talekar will show how the organisation’s success is its people, not complicated management or expensive technology “Generally, no one will open [business] secrets in front of anyone but we are the people who are not afraid of anything, from anyone,” Mr Talekar told a Delhi TedxTalk in 2010. “After 120 years of competition, no competitor has come.”
Mr Talekar speaks from experience. He worked as a dabbawala for two years and is now a speaker for the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust of Mumbai. His father is the organisation’s general secretary but leaves it to his son to travel around the world on his behalf.
The simplicity of the dabbawala management system has earned it praise and admiration from the world’s top business leaders, including Sir Richard Branson, the chairman of the Virgin Group who watched the men at work at the city’s Churchgate Station.
“They don’t have any customer-relationship management system, they don’t have any legal department and they do 200,000 deliveries a day,” says Meerambi Shaikh, one of the conference organisers from Datamatix Group.
“They have the world record in best time management, in quality, in decision making. They have an attrition rate of zero and the highest customer satisfaction, so these are the points that make them different to others.
“All people who are coming to the conference can take away from what they are giving. They have not used the high end of technology and still they have achieved a lot.”
Mr Talekar’s first lesson is the importance of accuracy. He likes to quote his father’s business mantra: “Error is Horror”. Even the dabbawalas’ minuscule error rate is a cause of concern for him.
“We’re not 100 per cent because we’re human beings,” he told the Delhi TedxTalk audience.
The dabbawalas work through the chaos of city life with the single goal of on-time deliveries.
Timing is key. Dabbawalas call the hours from 9.30am to 12.00am “wartime” as they race through the world’s fourth most populous city.
They collect and deliver home-cooked meals from homes to workplaces in Mumbai at a low cost and without modern technology.
They rush through the city traffic in their trademark white Gandhi cap, working six days a week, even during the severe floods of 2005 and the bombings of 2008. They saw off Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC’s Top Gear team in a 2011 challenge.
Dabbawalas use their heads for quick decision-making instead of reliance on modern technology. A simple series of colour codes on the lid of each tiffin box identifies its destination down to the floor of office building.
“Technology backup is nil,” said Mr Talekar. “We don’t use any kind of technology. Our brain is our computer, and that cap.
“You have seen that cap and the turban. That is the cover of our computer. Once you cover your computer with those covers no, nothing is going to go wrong.”
Mr Talekar places a high priority on discipline and company appearance. Dabbawalas must carry ID and are not permitted to drink, smoke or remove their caps while on duty.
Excuses are not accepted.
Stefan Thomke, a professor at Harvard Business School, gives the example from July 2005, when Mumbai was hit by high tides and heavy monsoon rains that flooded the city with more than 60 centimetres of rain in 12 hours.
The city stopped. On the second day of flooding, when most of the city remained trapped by water, the dabbawalas were back at work.
Part of this motivation comes from the simple organisational structure: 800 mukadams, or group leaders, manage teams of about 25 workers in each area. The members manage their own finances, operations and customers. Clients join by word of mouth.
Upper management consists of a president, vice president, general secretary, treasurer and nine directors. Most employees are from villages around Pune and have a literacy rate of year eight school pupil. They are aged between 18 and 65.
Dabbawalas are all share holders who earn between 6,000 and 7,000 rupees (Dh453) a month and a one-month bonus at Dawali paid for by customers.
The organisation has never had a strike in its 123 years.
“Going on strike means committing suicide,” Mr Talekar said.
Despite the tough conditions and pay, the turnover rate is low. They stay competitive with costs of about 350 to 400 rupees a month.
The organisation has long held the respect of the city and, more recently, has attracted the eye of business leaders and academics such as Prof Thomke.
“How can a poorly educated, decentralised workforce perform so beautifully in an environment that can charitably be described as unpredictable and challenging?” he wrote in an article for Harvard Business Review, published in November last year.
“The dabbawalas have an overall system whose basic pillars – organisation, management, process and culture – are perfectly aligned and mutually reinforcing. In the corporate world, it’s uncommon for managers to strive for that kind of synergy.”
Few managers consider all four, Prof Thomke noted.
“Culture, for example, often gets short shrift. Too few mangers seem to recognise that they should nurture their organisations as communities – not just because they care about employees but because doing so will maximise productive and creativity, and reduce risk.
“The takeaway: managers shouldn’t think of themselves merely as leaders or supervisors. They also need to be architects who design and fine-tune systems that enable employees to perform at optimal levels.”
All of the publicity has earned them some high-profile admirers.
On one occasion, Mr Talekar’s father was told that a “boss” wanted to meet and discuss the dabbawala business strategy.
Unaware that the “boss” in question was Charles, the Prince of Wales, his father dismissed the request until summoned by the Mumbai police commissioner and told the request had come from the heir to the British throne.
The prince was granted a visit on the condition that he be at Mumbai’s Churchgate station between 11.20am and 11.40am – the short period of the day when the dabbawalas had a rare moment to relax.
Sir Richard Branson stayed even longer, spending a full day with the dabbawalas riding the trains of Mumbai.
“He took some photographs along with the dabbawalas and said that ‘I’m going to display all these photographs all over the world in all my offices, and I will tell my employees: walk like a dabbawala’.”