Mumbai's Dabbawalas - An Entrepreneurial Success Story

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Case Details:

Case Code : LDEN028
Case Length : 10 Pages
Period : 1950-2004
Pub Date : 2004
Teaching Note : Available
Organization : Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers
Industry : Service
Countries : USA

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This case study was compiled from published sources, and is intended to be used as a basis for class discussion. It is not intended to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of a management situation. Nor is it a primary information source.

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"A model of managerial and organizational simplicity"

- C K Prahalad, Professor, University of Michigan Business School and Management Guru, commenting on the Dabbawalas' operations.1

"The fascinating story of Mumbai's Dabbawalas is an inspiration to all organizations aspiring to compete in the global market place"

- Pradeep B. Deshpande, President of Six Sigma and Advanced Controls, Inc. and Professor of Chemical Engineering, University of Louisville.2

A Six Sigma Performance

Every day, battling the traffic and crowds of Mumbai city, the Dabbawalas,3 also known as Tiffinwallahs,4 unfailingly delivered thousands of dabbas to hungry people and later returned the empty dabbas to where they came from. The Dabbawalas delivered either home-cooked meals from clients' homes or lunches ordered for a monthly fee, from women who cook at their homes according to the clients' specifications. The Dabbawalas' service was used by both working people and school children. In 1998, Forbes Global magazine, conducted a quality assurance study on the Dabbawalas' operations and gave it a Six Sigma efficiency rating of 99.999999; the Dabbawalas made one error in six million transactions.

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That put them on the list of Six Sigma5 rated companies, along with multinationals like Motorola and GE. Achieving this rating was no mean feat, considering that the Dabbawalas did not use any technology or paperwork, and that most of them were illiterate or semiliterate. Apart from Forbes, the Dabbawalas have aroused the interest of many other international organizations, media and academia.

In 1998, two Dutch filmmakers, Jascha De Wilde and Chris Relleke made a documentary called 'Dabbawallahs, Mumbai's unique lunch service'. The film focussed on how the tradition of eating home-cooked meals, and a business based on that, could survive in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. In July 2001, The Christian Science Monitor, an international newspaper published from Boston, Mass., USA, covered the Dabbawalas6 in an article called 'Fastest Food: It's Big Mac vs. Bombay's dabbawallahs'. In 2002, Jonathan Harley, a reporter, did a story on the Dabbawalas with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). In 2003, BBC also aired a program on the Dabbawalas, which was part of a series on unique businesses of the world.

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1]  Shamsi Maria, The charioteers of meals, Jetwings Online, June 2003.

2]  Deshpande B Pradeep, India, Inc., and Six Sigma: If Dabbawallahs can do it, you can too!, papers.html

3]  In Hindi, 'dabba' means lunch box and 'wala' means man. The prefix to 'wala' indicates the occupation of the person. Therefore, Dabbawala means lunchbox delivery man.

4]  Tiffin means lunch.

5]  Six Sigma is an efficiency standard developed by Motorola. To get a Six Sigma rating a company should not have more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities.

6]  Scott Baldauf, the reporter who covered the story, followed a Dabbawala to understand the delivery process and their daily routine.


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