A collection of resources and commentary providing an introduction to supply chain management and related systems for students, practitioners, and anyone else interested in learning more about how to design, manufacture, transport, store, deliver, and manage products.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
Mumbai's Dabbawalas Go Hi-Tech
The following article
caught my eye. It talks about how the Dabbawalas of Mumbai (Bombay) are planning
to use information technology to expand their business. It makes for an
In class we learnt that the
Dabbawalas have a system that has been tweaked over time to produce an
efficiency of 99.99% without the use of IT. So now they plan to
use IT, not to improve their efficiency but to expand their business with the
help of the Internet and Text Messaging.
over a century they delivered hot lunch in packages to thousands of Bombay's
working people with almost faultless efficiency without the help of information
technology. But now Bombay's ubiquitous Dabbawalas deliverymen have realized
that they need to go high-tech after all -- not only to expand their business
but also for their social security.
Indeed the Dabbawala's method of lunch delivery is unique. Their origin
dates back to the 1890s, a period when Bombay saw an influx of people from
various communities and regions of India migrating to the city to seek
livelihood. According to the Association, there were no canteens or fast-food centres
then, and those who could not take a packed lunch from home since they had to
leave early invariably had to go hungry.
Besides, different communities had different tastes and preferences that
could only be satisfied by a home-cooked meal. Recognizing the need, a migrant
from the Indian state of Maharashtra called Mahadeo started the lunch delivery
service with about 100 men, and the rest is history. For over 115 years these
lunch deliverymen who were subsequently started to be called Dabbawalas have
been collecting lunch packed in three or two-tier metal boxes (called dabbas)
from subscribers' homes and delivering them to their workplaces.
Today the 5,000 Dabbawalas make about 200,000 lunch deliveries in the city
and have become famous for their clockwork precision and efficiency. Reportedly
their mistake rate is just 1 in 16 million deliveries, which caused the Forbes
Global magazine to award its Six Sigma certification in 2001. According to
Forbes the Dabbawalas work with 99.999999 percent accuracy.
But besides the accuracy rating, the Dabbawala supply-chain system has also
attracted interests from global educational institutions and think tanks for
In fact, some even say that the Dabbawalas work like the Internet. Just like
the Internet, where voice or data files are sliced into tiny packets with their
own coded addresses that are then ferried in bursts, independent of other
packets and possibly taking different routes, across the world, the Dabbawalas
too work with packets in a similar manner.
They collect lunch boxes from homes in the morning and take them to the
nearest railway station. From there each of the boxes that is coded according
to the station of origin, the Dabbawala team at the collection and delivery
point, and the destination, are sorted out and taken to the next intermediary
stations, where they are sorted out again for area-wise distribution and
delivery. So a single lunch pack could change hands three to four times in the
course of its daily journey, "yet they get delivered without a mistake
since they are so well coded," says Manish Tripathy, the chief information
officer who looks after the Association's technology functions.
Small wonder then, that the world in general too finds the Dabbawalas
fascinating. For instance the Berkeley University in California teaches the
logistic system of Dabbawalas as a case study in one of their business
management programs and many Indian business schools and industry associations
have the Dabbawala logistics system in their case-study agenda.
In 1998 two Dutch filmmakers, Jascha De Wilde and Chris Relleke, made a
documentary called "Dabbawalas, Mumbai's unique lunch service" and in
2001, the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston-based newspaper, covered the
Dabbawalas in an article called "Fastest Food: It's Big Mac vs. Bombay's
The British Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation have done features on the delivery system as well, while Prince
Charles was so impressed with their service that he had even invited a few
Dabbawalas to his marriage with Camilla Parker in London.
Yet these Dabbawalas have remained poor. "Nowhere in the world would
you find a lunch delivery service that costs as little as $9 a month,"
says Talekar. The charges for this complex delivery system have remained
dirt-cheap ever since its inception, and still the maximum rate that a
Dabbawala charges (depending on the distance carried) is about $11 a month.
Which is why technology is needed to improve their lives, says Tripathy.
"No doubt a major driver for establishing a Web-based and mobile phone
ordering system was the need for a central ordering facility where one can call
for a Dabbawala's service by just hitting the Web site or through an SMS,"
says Tripathy, "but the other equally important driving force was to
The Bombay Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, have finally started their own
Web site and a text messaging order taking system that enables them to bag
orders real time instead of depending on secondary sources like references or
"The world is moving ahead on technology," said Gangaram Talekar,
61, the Hindi-speaking secretary of the Association, "and we have to move
with times too. So we decided to take advantage of technology to expand our business."
Talekar, who has been a Dabbawala for 40
years, admits that he has never operated a computer and doesn't know the
language of text messaging "that well. I can just read the name, address
and the telephone number of the sender in an SMS (short messaging
service)," he says. "But I know that to grow and make our lives
secure we must use technology."
Until recently business has come just through word-of-mouth or from contacts
made in local railway stations. "But ever since we introduced the
SMS-based ordering service we have been getting about 15 new orders every
day," said Tripathy.
The Web site (www.mydabbawala.com) has also enabled the association to
solicit donations and sell merchandise, the proceeds of which go towards
creation of a social security fund to pay for the Dabbawalas' life and medical
"The use of IT would not stop there," says Tripathy, "we
would be stretching its use soon to enable the Dabbawalas to add additional
lines of business." According to him the next plan is to gear the
Dabbawalas with the ability to sell groceries and other daily necessities, the
orders of which could be taken through their mobile phones.