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Major corporations struggle to deliver high quality services, and small businesses learn through repeated ‘trial and error’, and yet 5000 semi-literate lunchbox carriers in Mumbai can lose just one 1 in 6 million ‘tiffins’ that, as a united organism, they deliver from the client’s home, to their workplace, and back to home again.

Dabbawallas delivering
Dabbawallas delivering food in Mumbai with 6 Sigma accuracy

I’m on a flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur at present, so I haven’t got Internet access to confirm this story I’ve just read in the inflight magazine, but it certainly appears that this group of hard-working Indians operates far more efficiently than just about any business I’ve ever encountered.

The dabbawallas use a highly precise and consistent approach to collecting a tiffin containing a home cooked meal from their client’s home, delivering it to the railway station, loading about 100 tiffins (in crates) on to the train in 15 seconds flat, and then (via a delivery ‘addressing’ system encoded on the top of each tiffin) the crates are offloaded at the appropriate stations by other ‘team members’, and individual tiffins delivered to their client’s office in time for lunch. The process is then reversed to deliver the empty tiffin back home by no later than 4pm.

Dabbawallas are all members of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charitable Trust (NMTBSCT) and don’t receive a salary, but rather a share of the monthly revenues (about US $100 per month per person). They’ve not had a strike in 116 years, they lose or misdeliver only one tiffin every two months or so, and there are virtually no disputes. They’re so trusted by their clients, that people have apparently been known to send cash or their cheque book (tucked inside the outer case of the tiffin) to their husband at work. In fact, Mumbai’s telecommunications provider Airtel had so much confidence in their accuracy, reliability, diligence, and honesty that they entered into a ground-breaking partnership with them to have the dabbawallas deliver prepaid phone cards and bundled handsets to their new clients.

On so many fronts, this is an inspirational story! There are so many lessons to be learned — both for corporations in the developed world, and for those seeking to work in similiar environments and introduce creative solutions to everyday problems, and to create livelihood opportunities. When the likes of Richard Branson, and US business schools, invite dabbawallas to educate them about their unrivalled quality and reliability, it’s a huge breath of fresh air for me.

So what do you think? What creative ways can you see of adapting the lessons of ingenuitiy, diligence, process, team work, reliabilty, and honesty from the dabbawallas to any number of alternative circumstances?