FT : Mumbai’s Incredible Dabbawallas (Part 2)

Monday, November 19, 2007

…..Papers have been written analysing their efficiency by, among others, Singapore’s National University and Mumbai’s National Institute of Industrial Engineering. and in 2004, Harvard Business School published a case study of the system.  The dabbawallas, as they are known, are part of a 5,000-strong workforce that every day collectively rushes tens of thousands of tiffin boxes (stacked cylindrical tins of food) across the city.  The meals are cooked in the morning by wives, sisters and maids and – using a relay system in which each meal changes hands several times – they reach the right person by lunchtime.  The entire process takes place in a matter of hours.  In an unusual example of reverse logistics, the empty tins are collected after lunch and, using the same system, are returned to the housewives who packed them with food earlier that day.  The dabbawallas, “dabba” meaning lunchbox and “walla” meaning the person associated with the trade, work with the most basic equipment.  No databases, software or barcode scanners are used.  And instead of trucks or aircraft, they rely on their feet, their heads, bicycles, carts and the luggage compartments of the trains that make up Mumbai’s extensive suburban rail network.  Once they have collected the tins from their clients, the dabbawallas head to the railway station, where they sort their cargoes according to destination and pack them into the luggage compartments of commuter trains.  A coded system of numbers and signs painted on top of each tin directs it to the correct office, school or government building, as well as to the right floor and room.  Few of the dabbawallas are educated.  Many are illiterate.  And yet every day they deliver more than 170,000 individual meals with almost no mix-ups.  “Our computer is in our head and our Gandhi cap is the computer cover to protect it from the sun or rain,” says Raghunath Medge, head of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust, the association that governs the dabbawallas.  He carries in his pocket the business card given to him by celebrated strategist CK Prahalad, professor of corporate strategy at Michigan University’s Ross School of Business, a fan of the dabbawallas.  This low-tech approach to an extremely complex and accurate system fascinates academics.  Mr Medge is invited to business schools across India and overseas to talk about his organisation’s approach to supply chain management.  Although he speaks no English, he appears at events with titles such as “Impeccable Logistics and Supply Chain Management” and has made presentations to institutions such as India’s Strategic Communication for Management and the Confederation of Indian Industries.  As well as academic papers, insights into Mumbai’s extraordinary lunch-delivery system are shown to business executives and students on screen.  The film Dabbawallas , made by Paul Goodman, director of the Institute for Strategic Development Carnegie Mellon University, is shown at business schools and sold for use in executive training programmes.  Prof Goodman believes the dabbawallas can offer managers and students another way of looking at supply chain issues. 

He argues that the reason the dabbawallas have attracted the attention of the corporate world is because their system so clearly demonstrates the fact that technology is not the only ingredient necessary for achieving efficient logistics operations.  “These people do it with what I call human and social ingenuity,” he says “And that’s why it resonates with managers because smart managers know that technology is only part of the solution to complex supply chain issues.”  Another characteristic of the system that offers lessons for the corporate world is its reliance on teamwork, with each dabbawalla acting as a vital link in the chain, something Hindustan Lever, the consumer goods company that is part of Unilever, has picked up on.  Every year, it sends a handful of managers to spend a week following the dabbawallas, as part of its teambuilding efforts.  “There’s an incredible amount of interdependence within the systems and that’s why companies are interested,” says Prof Goodman.  “And it’s an example of a high reliability, complicated system that’s very customer- focused.”  Bob Reinheimer, executive director of Duke CE, designed the programme for the financial services executives and accompanied them to India.  He found that customer focus was the most important element of what he hoped the executives would learn from meeting the dabbawallas.  On their trip to India, the executives were asked to consider an answer to the question: “How can we use technology and other means to create true customer intimacy on a global scale?”  After researching the question, the executives would then report to their board on what their company could be doing.  “I was worried everyone would be so lost in all the technology, they might forget some of the fundamentals – pride and loyalty and those human characteristics,” says Prof Reinheimer.  In addition to visiting technology companies, the participants spent a day with the dabbawallas…..”The first thing was that the executives saw it as a very interesting cultural experience – and there’s nothing quite like it,” says Prof Reinheimer.  “But then we pushed deeper and it came down to understanding that customer intimacy has to do with enduring relationships, dependability of service and workers themselves having pride in membership.”….

Reference : http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ef0bb158-9640-11dc-b7ec-0000779fd2ac.html

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