Finally when this subject almost lost its complete relevance, I am able to pen my thoughts about the wonderful experience of having the dabbawalas with us in IIMK at our Operations Management seminar OPUS 2006.
On 26th November the junta of IIM managed what would be undoubtedly one of the incredible feats, that of waking up at 7:55 AM on a SUN morning braving the intoxicating lethargy and the uncanny sleeplessness which always brings an incredible listlessness to any IIM student. The occasion was the onset of the Dabbawalas, a marvel of Six sigma for the professional community, that of immaculate reliability for the common office go’er and that of high curiosity value for the likes of globetrotting royalty, the likes of Prince Charles.
Let me describe the quintessential dabbawala for those who have never been to Mumbai (Bombay), they are ‘the daughty little man in distinctive white Gandhi cap, who delivers thousands of hungry lunches to officer-goers every afternoon. The dabbawalla gets his name from the dabba, the aluminium containers fitted one above the other, held in place by a wire grip and lowered into an outer tin case, which serves the double purpose of keeping the food warm and preventing it from splashing out during the dabbawala’s rushed and jostling journey’
Two senior folks in their largely flat hierarchy came over, Raghunath Megde the President of New Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier Association and the secretary Mr. Gangaram Talekar. The both were very plainly dressed with the signature ‘Gandhi topi’s’ on. They spoke not in a faked accentuated Hinglish (An un-cognizable amalgamation of hindi and English) but in their natural and earthen Mumbai-Hindi. The fact that they had no pretensions about them and spoke witty one liners like ‘Teaching IIM students about management is like Teaching Amitabh Bachan acting!’ help in capturing rapt attention of the sleepy and drowsy junta.
To state some facts about the organization, as revealed to us by them. The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association is a streamlined 120-year-old organization (started in 1890 and registered in 1956) with 4,500 semi-literate members (Average literacy being 8th grade schooling) providing a quality door-to-door service to a large and loyal customer base(roughly 200000 in numbers) at an unimaginably low cost (Rs. 300 per month). The organization is an absolutely flat structure with everyone a stakeholder in the final profits. Every individual gets equal share in the overall profit at the end of the year irrespective of rank, age, work etc. There is a body of seniors ‘The Mukhadam’ who do the overall monitoring of the process and engage in any crisis management. These are simply the folks who have been in the business for about 30-40 years and are now in a position to guide and mentor the others. A common misconception goes that these are the contractors which is not true as in the true spirit of any co-operative they draw the same salary as any other.
The whole chain starts with the friendly dabbawala knocking at your door to ollect the tiffin case at 0930 from your doorstep. This tiffin case has a uniquely marking which indicates the Originating rail station, the destination station the building name and the floor number of delivery. The color of the marking indicates the groups responsible of collecting this dabba at any particular point. This is a simple but very very efficient system designed and as any Operations Consultant would tell you involves failsafing techniques, called POKA-YOKE.
The marvel of this organization goes beyond operations management and encompasses cross-functional stuff like Organizational Management and Logistics Control (Supply Chain Management). But most importantly it is the business model which works seamlessly even in an environment as uncertain as ours. There in an inherent discipline that ensures that order is maintained. For every 6 people on active duty in the structure there is one who acts as a backup for contingencies. Load balancing is done through a heuristic involving human expertise and previous field knowledge. The mantra always being ‘The Show must go on’. Members adhere by a liberal but inflexible code of conduct which includes never being in an inebriated state at work and always donning the signature ‘Gandhi Topi’. Moreoever all duties and responsibilities are collectively owned, just like the whole profit earned are collectively distributed amongst member partners. Also, their regiment is not tailored for VIP visits and/or other ‘Occasion Specific’ demands. So when Prince Charles wanted to meet them, they eagerly consented on condition that he would have to meet them on Victoria Terminus (VT) Railway station at exactly 10:00 hours and he would have a maximum time of 20 minutes because at 10:20 hours the train to Andheri/Vile Parle departs and most dabbawalas need to board it. Lesson from all this is simple yet pivotal in any successful engagement. Its of prioritization and identificatoion of core responsibilities. The customers, the recipients of the tiffin boxes are the first priority of the dabbawalas. Everything else comes second to that, or maybe third or fourth. There are no compromises made with the core responsibility of delivering the boxes on time and at correct destination.
All in all it was a wonderful experience having them there with us !