There’s a metropolitan business that handles 200,000 deliveries and 400,000 transactions per day with an error rate of 1 in 16 million and a 98% on-time rate, despite dealing with severe congestion and all while absorbing 5-10% business growth per year. Their reverse logistics is as fast and efficient as their forward logistics. Most impressive of all: they’ve used essentially the same system since 1880 with no reliance on “real time” electronic updates, and they depend on a limited organizational hierarchy with little centralized decision-making. What is this business? It’s the dabbawalas of Mumbai, India.

    Dabbawalas are a lunch delivery service. They pick up warm, homemade lunches from the homes of workers and then deliver them to the workplace. After lunch, they gather the lunch pails - called dabbas or tiffins - and return them to their homes. The dabbawalas make for an interesting supply chain case because they eschew much of the accepted wisdom of Western supply chains. They distribute customer information rather than centralize it. And other than public trains and bicycles, they minimize reliance on technology, although recently they have begun to accept customer bookings via text messages. They don’t invest in expensive routing or tracking technologies. They don’t rely on a formal “toolkit” from quality, lean or any other trendy management buzzword. Without any of the tools of Western management, they coordinate the movement of 200,000 deliveries per day through several transfer points to other dabbawalas over 60 square kilometers of sprawl between Mumbai’s suburbs and its downtown.

    What do they do “right” according to Western supply chain theory? They collaborate closely with their customers to understand their needs. They share the rewards. Each dabbawala is an individual entrepreneur who handles about 35 customers; therefore each dabbawala makes the same money, and limits the growth of complexity and its concomitant impacts on customer service levels and process management. They standardize communication of key information, using symbols on the dabbas to represent delivery addresses and situations such as, “Deliver to office up the stairs on the right.” Although their hierarchy is very flat, they do have team leaders for every 25-30 dabbawalas in order to resolve issues, pass information, and coordinate activities. Their structure is an admirable mix of agile (being very responsive to customer requests) and efficient (doing no more than necessary).

    Most dabbawalas are illiterate, but they are wise because they get the most important thing right: they focus on the one measure of success that really matters - customer service level. That ONE thing they must get right determines everything they do. The dabbawalas have a strong culture of service to others, and a strong code of behavior that requires wearing a white Gandhi cap and carrying identification, prohibits alcohol and price undercutting, and ensures that dabbawalas look out for each other. The coherence of the culture is overseen by their guild, called the Bombay Tiffinbox Suppliers Association. The guild handles emergencies, such as a dabbawalas being hit by a truck during rush hour, and also provides protection and reinforces their culture - the single force that unites all the dabbawalas amid the chaos of Mumbai’s lunch rush.

    The dabbawalas remind us of the importance of the right organizational culture over finding the right techniques or strategy. The truth is, implementation by workers is the biggest impediment to success. How many times have you tried to implement a new management strategy or technique only to be disappointed in the return on effort? How many times have you dealt with an employee who - despite repeated classes on the latest technique or strategy - still doesn’t get it? How often have you had to deal with a dissatisfied customer because of a problem that should never have occurred? If you’re struggling to treat the symptoms of these and other common problems in your supply chain, it might be time to get back to basics.

    Winston Churchill said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” The dabbawalas show us that the right culture can achieve great results without the latest management techniques and even without what most supply chain managers would call a clear strategy. But when was the last time you heard of a management technique or great strategy overcoming an apathetic or fragmented culture? Perhaps the first question you should ask your employees is: do you know which results matter most?


    This article is part of the monthly series authored by the Institute for Supply Management’s Logistics & Transportation Group Board Members, who are current practitioners, consultants, trainers, and educators. In future columns, they will continue sharing their views on a number of Supply Chain and Professional Development topics.

    Dr. Michael Gravier, PhD, CTL, is an Associate Professor of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Bryant University in Providence, RI. He is also the 1st Vice Chair of ISM’s Logistics & Transportation Group and can be reached at mgravier@bryant.edu or (401) 232-6950. Membership in the L&T Group is open to all current ISM members who are responsible for or have an interest in Logistics & Transportation.

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