Mastering the Logistics of Delivering Lunch: The Dabbawalas


Restaurants offering delivery of their items for a cost is nothing too special in most large cities. However, the service is typically only offered on orders over a certain amount and only for some items and not others.

What would you say then if we told you than in Mumbai, India you could have your food delivered to you every day for a monthly fee of around $10? The service would also be guaranteed rain or shine, and even during more extreme situations such as monsoons and political strife which is only part of the reason why its growing at a steady rate of 5 to 10 percent a year.

The best part of all is that this delivery service doesn’t have a minimum amount that needs to be ordered before it applies as it isn’t tied to any restaurants. It is instead a service by the dabbawalas (“those who carry boxes”), and they specialize in receiving home cooked meals from a family’s home in a tiffin (a circular silver tin with multiple compartments) and delivering the lunch to a working spouse who could be several miles away.

Over 200,000 meals a day are collected by around 5,000 dabbawalas in the morning from their clients’ homes.

The lunches are sorted according to where they came from, and where they are intended to go. Each tiffin is labelled with an alpha numeric code and loaded onto city trains before traversing the city’s maze of over 22 million before being handed off to local dabbawalas who complete the last part of the delivery. After the food is eaten, the tiffins are collected by dabbawalas and make a return trip to their respective homes.

What’s most impressive is that although the majority of the dabbawalas are semi-literate or illiterate, mistakes are rarely made. Their delivery system has been awarded a six sigma level of efficiency. That means they make around one mistake in every six million deliveries. The incredible level of efficiency and precision of their delivery system has even garnered the attention FedEx and was the topic of a Harvard Business School case-study.

Organization and Logistics

The organization of this dabbawalas is very interesting as its largely decentralized with no organizational structure, managerial layers or explicit control mechanisms. Dabbawalas are divided into sub-groups of fifteen to 25, each supervised by four mukadams. The mukadams are familiar with the colors and codings used in the complex logistics process.

Their key responsibility is sorting tiffins but they play a critical role in resolving disputes; maintaining records of receipts and payments; acquiring new customers; and training junior dabbawalas. Each group is financially independent but coordinates with others for deliveries. The process is competitive at the customers’ end and united at the delivery end. The dabbawala business has been adapting well to changes in the big city including going online. Customers can now log onto their website to access their service.

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2 thoughts on “Mastering the Logistics of Delivering Lunch: The Dabbawalas”

  1. Pingback: The New Logistics Behind Pizza Delivery | Morai Logistics

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