Mumbai Dabbawala’s Exemplary Performance

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Mumbai Dabbawala as an organisation is well known for its exemplary performance categorised by very low defects in its services. Forbes Magazine reported that its defect level was 1 per million transactions, which is exceedingly better than the Six Sigma prescribed 3.45 DPMO (defects per million opportunities). This makes Mumbai Dabbawala arguably the best performing organisation in the world in terms of quality.

Each employee of the organisation is commonly known as a Dabbawala (one who carries lunch box). While the Dabbawalas did what they did, and in spite of several case studies on them, the key “X” factor on why they perform so well remained unknown, including to the Dabbawalas, until Dr Pradeep B Deshpande, CEO, Six Sigma and Advanced Controls Inc. USA (SAC), unravelled the secret, in January 2019. Learning about this X Factor and adopting it in our day to day life and work can replicate the same level of efficiency and effectiveness and can accelerate the success rate amidst challenging situations.

Precision human machines

Mr Ritesh Andre, Coordinator of Mumbai Dabbawala, traced their growth from a humble beginning in 1890, when a Parsi banker asked his great grandfather, Shri Mahadu Havaji Bachhe, to deliver his lunch box. Today, they have 5000 dabbawalas and 2 lakh customers. They carry out 4 lakh transactions a day, collecting lunch boxes from customers’ homes in the morning between 9 and 10.30 am, delivering them for lunch between 12 and 1 pm, collecting the empty boxes between 1.30 and 2.30 pm, and delivering them back home between 4.30 and 6pm.

The team works daily like a well-oiled high precision machine, making no mistake in the process. The entire world awed at their high performance culture. To top it all, 80% of the employees are illiterate; they do not use paper, technology or the Internet, nor do they consume plastics or any fuel for transport. They use a combination of bicycle, Mumbai’s local trains and hand-carts for the entire process, spanning 60 to 70 kms of Mumbai, thereby making their entire operation eco-friendly. As Mumbai’s local trains through which most employees commute are heavily crowded, it is almost impossible for people to carry with them in the train their lunch boxes. Therefore, they take the services of Dabbawalas.

Decoding their code

While modern supply chain uses barcodes and RFIDs, Dabbawalas follow a simple alpha-numeric code that has evolved over time. Written in oil paint, the code contains details like the place of origin and destination, originating and destination railway stations and the building to which the boxes are to be delivered. While digital scanners read the barcodes, the Dabbawala visually scans the unique code on the lunch-boxes.

The Dabbawalas carry their own lunch. Each of them earns about Rs 20K to 22K per month as their salary, charging the customers between Rs 600 and Rs 1200 depending on factors such as the commuting distance and size of the lunch box. The Dabbawalas also provide free food for hungry children, contributing their little bit towards a hunger-free Mumbai. During Kerala floods, each employee chipped in Rs 20; they raised Rs. 1 lakh and donated it for the flood victims. No wonder their tagline is: “It is only by helping each other, we can achieve our goal.”

Accolades all the way

Their achievements in carrying out a supposedly simple job of delivering lunch-boxes, with zero investment are mind-boggling, to say the least.
Sample these: Their precision rate has humbled Six-Sigma. In their 128 year history, there has been no resignation or a strike, as each employee is a stakeholder in the venture. There is no retirement age-limit and even 85 year old people work with them. When Prince Charles visited India in November of 2004, he spent 20 minutes with the Dabbawalas, at their place and time. A British High Commission Official said the idea was to show the Prince something that was unique to Mumbai. Of the three guests from India invited to London for Prince Charles’ second marriage, two were Dabbawalas.

They have got ISO certification, though the employees do not know what ISO stands for. All that they know are: Customer is God; Time is Money; Giving Food is a great service (Annadan is Mahadan) and Error is Horror. They have a collection in their office of over 7000 certificates for merit, quality and astonishing records, awarded to them by different bodies around the world.

They regularly feature in the Top 50 influential people that impact Mumbai. Several news channels have carried their story. Their pageantry was part of the 2010 Republic Day parade show in New Delhi. In 2005, Sir Richard Branson, Chairman of Virgin Airways, blown away by the feats of Dabbawalas travelled with them in a Mumbai local train and delivered lunch boxes to employees of Virgin Airways in Churchgate, Mumbai.

Cracking their X factor

Mr Raja Atmamayan, Vice-President, Ascent Transformation Ventures, spoke on the theme: How Mumbai Dabba-walas Achieve Exemplary Performance? He explained the painstaking research done by Dr. Pradeep B. Deshpande, who was one of the pioneers in bringing Six Sigma to India. Dr Deshpande concluded that Six Sigma will fail over a period of time, unless an organisation raises its Internal Excellence.

He studied the Dabbawalas; the Kumbh Mela festival that is known for the largest gathering in the world, organised in an orderly and amazing manner; the Indian Army; ISRO and other organisations, and realised that a combination of yoga plays a part in raising Internal Excellence: Bhakthi Yoga or the Path of Love, Karma Yoga or Path of Service, Gyan Yoga or the Path of Dynamism and Righteousness and Raja Yoga or the Path of Discipline.

When he studied the Dabbawalas, he observed that most of them belong to a community called “Varkari” from the vicinity of Pune, whose ancestors served the army of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Their deity is Ragumayi Vittala of Pandharpur. Every year, they undertake a pilgrimage of over 200 Kms by walking to worship Vittala. They say that every customer is “Vittala” himself and hence they cannot afford to commit any errors while serving their deity. This belief is one of the main reasons why their ‘internal excellence’ is very high.

Elements of internal excellence

Internal Excellence is synonymous with terms like Emotional Excellence, Emotional Intelligence, Self Actualization, etc. Some of the characteristics of employees in a high Internal Excellence environment are:

  • More responsibility and ownership
  • More voluntariness
  • Higher focus and dedication
  • Seeing bigger picture of things
  • Honest, sincere, self-disciplined and devoted
  • Helping, caring, sharing, motivating and striving for inclusive wellbeing
  • Staying positive most of the occasions

These characteristics, in turn lead to:

  • Less stress and anxiety
  • Less fear and worries
  • Less grudge and anger
  • Emotional balance

Auditing internal excellence

Dr Deshpande scientifically audited Internal Excellence using:

  • EQ Radio developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded by several bodies, including the US Air Force, Google etc.
  • “Bio Well” working on the principle of Gas Discharge Visualization, developed by Dr. Konstantin Korotkov.

A sample population of Dabbawalas, on whom the research was carried out, measured 90% and above on internal excellence. This is the X-factor behind the phenomenal performance of ‘Mumbai Dabbawala,’ said Dr Deshpande. He also recommended some of the ways in which individuals and organisations can raise their internal excellence.

Ways to improve internal excellence

  • Introducing meditation (generally yoga) as a practice
  • Reorienting from a “Fear Driven” organisation culture to a “Trust Driven” culture
  • Enhancing positivity of managers and supervisors
  • Offering consistent positive attitude training programs to all the employees

All the participants who had tuned into the webinar left the session with the same sentiments echoed by the British High Commission official who coordinated the visit of Prince Charles to India and his meet with the Dabbawalas in 2004 and had then remarked, “”I don’t think any other city anywhere in India or even the World has such a system (as the Mumbai Dabbawala).”