How do you innovate a 132-year-old organisation whose members are illiterate or semi-illiterate, and avoid technology? This is such a fascinating story about the Mumbai Dabbawalas that fell into my lap via the TikTok and like most great tales there are two parts to it.
Part 1: Tradition Triumphs
The Mumbai dabbawalas are a food delivery service in India that started in 1890 when a banker, working far away from his home, decided he wanted a home-cooked meal for lunch. Back then mobile phone reception was atrocious so he couldn’t just download Uber Eats. Instead, he enlisted the help of Mahadeo Havaji Bacheche to go to his house, pick up lunch and have it delivered to his office.
In those days many workers had to travel far from home and because microwave ovens weren’t invented yet, a lot of them would skip lunch. Bacheche saw an opportunity to create a lunch delivery service. Over time, Bacheche’s little delivery service grew to 5,000 members, making over 200,000 transactions per day to people working in Mumbai government offices, companies and factories. Here’s how the system worked.
Around 9 am, a dabbawala would pick up around 35-40 tiffin containers (dabbas) from homes in their local area and take them via bicycle to the train station. At the station a group of dabbawalas would hand-write a code onto each of the containers based on their delivery destinations. More dabbawalas would then transport the containers via train to the appropriate regions. From there the containers would be delivered by bicycle or handcart to customer offices just before lunch around 12:30pm. At 2pm, the whole process would be reversed to return the containers to their homes, ready to do it all again the next day.
What is remarkable about the logistics of this process is that not a single element of digital technology was used in any part of the operation as many dabbawalas were illiterate or semi-illiterate. In 2011 when Harvard Business School came to observe how the system worked, they discovered it to have a Six Sigma efficiency rating of 99.99%, meaning only one out of every six million deliveries had an issue with it. What held the operation together was the people.
The dabbawala motto is “Work as worship”. They view it as more of a calling in service of God than a job. And being globally recognised and respected re-enforces a sense of pride and self-belief. As a result, the organisation operates as an employee-owned profit sharing scheme.
For 132 years the dabbawalas have conducted their operations in exactly the same way without any form of innovation. They have survived floods, riots and terrorist attacks. And then the COVID-19 Pandemic hit…
Part 2: Augmenting Reality – Innovating The Dabbawalas
Like most businesses around the world, the dabbawalas’ 132-year-old unstoppable tradition died overnight. Around 4,000 dabbawalas chose to return to their villages as farmers. The rest remained in Mumbai, taking work as drivers or security guards for gated communities.
After a year of struggle including India’s second deadly wave, things started to open up again. However with restrictions in place, the remaining dabbawalas were forced to adapt to survive.
In October 2021 there were just 500 dabbawalas delivering lunch to critical care workers. Before a dabbawala would deliver 35-40 meals a day, now they were lucky if they got 10. Unfortunately, train travel was restricted so many had to deliver on motorbikes.
But necessity is a powerful motivator that breeds creativity.
So finally after a 132-year-old tradition, the dabbawalas began to rethink their business. They began partnering with local restaurants and using those technology platforms to get notified of pickups and deliveries. As more dabbawalas returned to Mumbai they saw their colleagues doing things differently and earning more money, so they embraced it too. And since they were now open to new ideas, many more opportunities magically appeared.
The work from home crowd started asking if the dabbawalas could deliver home-cooked meals – sparking the idea of a “cloud kitchen” where customers could subscribe to a weekly or monthly meal service. They also began to learn English and improve their digital literacy which opened up a whole new world.
In 2021 the dabbawalas partnered with Anulom.com to provide a doorstep legal registration service for things like rental agreements and marriage registration. A customer logs into the Anulom portal and creates a request. The Anulom team creates the agreement and then a dabbawala comes to your doorstep with a laptop and biometric device to register it for you.
Prabodh Navare, Managing Director and Co-Founder of Anulom shared that as of the time of writing this article, Anulom’s entire Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai operations are fully managed by the dabbawalas. Anulom Director and Co-Founder, Sagar Ambedkar added:
“It is a pleasure to work with Mumbai Dabbawalas. So many things to learn from them like punctuality, and their simple and efficient approach to life. Always smiling and ready to put in a day’s hard work to make customers happy.”
Technology used to be an enabler of productivity but today it is an amplifier of human capability.
The dabbawalas have been operating a Six Sigma 99.99% delivery business based on simplicity and personal values for over 130 years. What could you plug into that system to take it to new levels for the next 130 years? It’s exciting to ponder the potential.
The story of the dabbawalas is a beautiful tale of what’s possible when we rethink innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship at work. Given the rapid change and uncertainty we face today, can we afford not to innovate?