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An insight into a remarkable system – The Dabbawalas

By January 29, 2013No Comments

The latest HBR has an article looking at the amazing organisation and service which is the Dabbawalas in Mumbai India. It’s well worth the read; here’s my take and some observations linking it back to lessons for other organisations.

Via Wikipeida

The Dabbawal’s Service Offering

Your own lunch, delivered from home to your office and then the container (tiffin) returned all withing the 6 hour lull between commuter rush hours. The back bone of this service is the train network, dedicated workers and an ingenious system.

Each tiffin tin is marked with a simple code which indicates which train, which stop and to which building the tin is to be delivered. After lunch the system runs in reverse and all the tins are returned back to their original homes.

Some Remarkable Facts

  • It’s 120 years old.
  • There are 5,000 people employeed.
  • They make 260,000 deliveries per day or almost 80 million transactions per year.
  • The workforce is mostly only semi literate.
  • They operate with a 6 sigma level of quality (Approximately 1 mistake per 6,000,000 deliveries)
  • There is no IT system and no mobile phones.

Key Features and Lessons

  1. The organisation is broken up into ~200 x 25 person units who operate largely autonomously. (Lesson: Scaling is hard, make your organisation a modular network.)
  2. The railway timetable provies a rhythm for the system, and a natural point of review for performance and problems. If a worker is consistently late then it’s obvious quickly and both can and must be addressed immediately. (Lesson: Build introspection and a quick response to problems into your system.)
  3. Each Dabbawala is an entrepreneur in their own right able to negotiate prices with their own customers (within some basic guidelines). This direct relationship with the customer means Dabbawalas own their customer and tend to work in the same area for a long time. While a group doesn’t have a monopoly over a partiular area there is also a no-poach agreement. (Lesson: Give people autonomy and have them engage your directly with your customers.)
  4. New hires are trained to assist with all activities for a minimum of 6 months, after which they can buy in to a group. (Lesson: Give people mastery, pair program and invest in cross skilling.)
  5. Workers with more than 10 years’ experience serve as supervisors but they also still pick up and deliver dabbas themselves. (Lesson: Leaders need to get their hands dirty and understand how sausages are made; they need to be in the system to learn.)
  6. Via NY Times

    Via NY Times

    The coding system on the tins contains enough information to know where it needs to go without containing a full address. The workers who run the same routes for a long time don’t need all the details and adding more would slow down sorting process and risk errors. (Lesson: Only  have as much documentation, process and governance as needed; any more is a waste.)

  7. Because of the unpredictable nature of traffic and other issues in a big city, the system must have a buffer; each team has 2 or 3 extra workers to fill in wherever needed. Because all members are cross trained they are able to fix problems with transport, sorting, customer service or finance issues.   So while the system is as lean as possible, it still has to have the capaicty to work when shit happens. (Lesson: Use humans to solve your edge cases, not process.)
  8. The dabbawalas vary enormously in age and tend to remain with their groups for their entire working lives. As a result team members then care for each other; an elderly worker who can’t carry heavy loads is then given other jobs but still paid the same. (Lesson: Treat people as humans, not machines, and they will be very loyal.)
  9. They have a simple shared purpose – deliver food on time, every time. (Lesson: Give people a purpose they can understand and believe in (hint: not Profit or the CEO getting his or her performance bonus).).

My Conclusion?

Like the women who built ships in World War I and II and the incredible achievements of the Lockheed Martin Skunkworks the Dabbawalas provide another example that with the right system ordinary people can do extraordinary things.   As leaders, focus on building and maintaining your system. Or as Demming puts it, 95% of the improvement lies with the system, and only 5% with the people.

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