MBA IIBMS ANSWER SHEETS – Supply Chain Management – How is the Trust coping with dabbawallah competitors

MBA IIBMS ANSWER SHEETS – Supply Chain Management – How is the Trust coping with dabbawallah competitors

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Supply Chain Management

Case I
Dabba was a generic, colloquial term used explicitly in Mumbai to describe any cylindrical box. In the context of meal delivery service, a dabba was an aluminum box carried by its handle like a tin of paint. Each dabba housed three to four interlocking steel containers and was held together by a collapsible metallic wire handle. Each of these containers accommodated an individual food item found in a typical midday lunch.
Wallah was a label for a tradesperson in a particular profession. For example, a paperwallah was an individual who delivered newspapers. Taken together, a dabbawallah was a courier who picked up a lunch-full dabba from a client’s home in the morning, left it outside of the client’s workplace for pick-up, retrieved the empty dabba after the lunch was consumed and returned the empty dabba to the client’s home in the evening.
On November 7, 2003, Raghunath Medge, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (The Trust), had just returned to his office in suburban Mumbai after meeting with Britain’s Prince Charles who was on an official visit to India’s commercial capital.
The Trust was the managing organization of the dabbawallah meal delivery network. The dabbawallahs’ service, often referred to as tiffinwallahs outside of Mumbai, was cited internationally by management scholars and industry executives as an exemplar of supply chain and service management. The service had acquired a reputation for its delivery reliability in Mumbai. International interest in the dabbawallahs was largely due to a 1998 article published in Forbes:
Mumbai’s “tiffinwallahs” have achieved a level of service to which Western businesses can only aspire. “Efficient organization” is not the first thought that comes to mind in India, but when the profit motive is given free rein, anything is possible. To appreciate Indian efficiency at its best, watch the tiffinwallahs at work. Documentaries on the dabbawallahs were produced by the BBC, M1V and ZEE Tv, and their delivery performance earned them recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Medge, who had personally demonstrated to Prince Charles how the dabbawallah meal delivery system worked, was himself in the spotlight of late. He had recently been invited by the Confederation of Indian Industry to speak to its members at a leadership summit in a special module titled “Leading Without Suits and Ties.” He was also approached by human resource executives and asked to present seminars on team building. Additionally, he was asked by corporations, such as Siemens India, to make a presentation to their employees on the dabbawallahs’ working practices. Finally, he was also regularly sought by the print and television media within and outside of India.
The dabbawallah service had begun informally in 1890 in Mumbai. According to Medge:
A Parsi banker working in Ballard Pier employed a young man, who came down from the Poona district to fetch his lunch every day. Business picked up through referrals and soon our pioneer dabba-carrying entrepreneur had to call for more helping hands from his village. Such was the origin of the dabbawallahs.
However trivial the task may sound, it is of vital importance since havoc is caused if the client had to skip his home-cooked food or worse, carry the dabba himself in the ever so crowded Mumbai trains during the rush hour!
By the early 20th century, people from all parts of India were migrating to Mumbai in large numbers. Once they found a source of livelihood and settled down, they wanted home-cooked food at their workplaces. Home-cooked food had a comfort level for various reasons. First, the food was prepared in the ambience of a domestic kitchen, with recipes that were tried and tested, and that resulted in familiar fare. Second, homecooked food was comparatively inexpensive. The dabbawallahs were initially charging two annas per month per dabba for their delivery service.
Working independently and in small groups for decades, the dabbawallahs had united in 1954 to put together a rudimentary co-operative. This umbrella organization was officially registered in 1956 as a charitable trust under the name Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust. At that time, some of the dabbawallahs employed delivery boys to carry their dab bas and transport them along their routes on bicycles and pushcarts.
These dabbawallahs would collect the fees from their clients every month and pay the boys whatever they could negotiate with them. This changed in 1983 when the Trust adopted an owner-partner system. Under this new system, the practice of subcontracting was dispensed with and dabbawallahs started to receive equal earnings. The delivery boys’ system was converted into an apprenticeship system wherein new recruits were trained for at least two to three years on a fixed remuneration before they became full-time dabbawallahs.
By 2003, more than 5,000 dabbawallahs worked under the aegis of the Trust. Together they delivered about 175,000 lunches daily in Mumbai (see Exhibit 2). They served a total area that covered approximately 75 kilometres (lan) of public transport. The dabbawallah business generated approximately Rs380 million per annum. Given the two-way route for each dabba, the number of deliveries worked out to more than 350,000 per day. Despite the sheer number of daily deliveries, the failure rate reported by the media numbered one in two months, or one in every 15 million deliveries.
The Nutan Mumbai
Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust
The Trust was responsible for managing the overall meal delivery system. It worked in close co-ordination with the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association, a forum that provided opportunities for social interactions among the dabbawallahs, and the Dakkhan Mavle Sahakari Patpedhi, a credit union that catered to the financial needs of individual dabbawallahs by providing personal loans. Given its charitable trust status, the Trust was also involved in community initiatives by providing free food and accommodation to low-income families at some pilgrimage centres.
The Trust had a three-tier structure: Executive Committee, mukadams and dabbawallahs. Under this structure, the basic operating unit was the team. Each team, which comprised between five and eight dabbawallahs, was headed by a mukadam. Having risen from the ranks of the dabbawallahs, a mukadam’s primary daily responsibility involved the sorting of the dabbas. However, as team leader, the mukadam performed several administrative tasks that included maintaining records of client payments, arbitrating disputes between dabbawallahs and customers, and apprentice training.
Number of
Number of

MBA IIBMS ANSWER SHEETS – Supply Chain Management – How is the Trust coping with dabbawallah competitors


MBA IIBMS ANSWER SHEETS – Supply Chain Management – How is the Trust coping with dabbawallah competitors


The mukadam was also in charge of acquiring new clients for the team and managing customer satisfaction. New customers purchased their dabba from the dabbawallahs when service was commenced. Dabbas were typically replaced, at cost to the customer, once every two years.
Seven to eight mukadams typically aggregated their efforts and constituted a profit centre; each profit centre was referred to as a “group.” There were about 120 groups in total. While each group was managed autonomously, its members stepped in without hesitation to help other groups· in dealing with emergencies such as dabbawallah absenteeism. Monthly group maintenance costs totalled Rs35,000, covering the maintenance of the bicycles, pushcarts and wooden boxes the dabbawallahs used in their daily deliveries.
The 13 members of the Executive Committee, which were elected by the general body every five years, co-ordinated the activities of the various groups. The Committee, which undertook all major decisions for the Trust and worked on the principles specified in the Co-operative Societies Act, met on the 15th of each month. Operational issues typically dominated each meeting’s agenda. Examples of such issues included disputes with the Mumbai city railways over dabbawallahs not carrying their monthly passes or the ID issued to them by the Trust, and with the city police when dabbawallahs parked their pushcarts or bicycles where parking was not permitted. Annually, there were few reports of lost or stolen dabbas. In such instances, clients were reimbursed by the individual dabbawallah or given a free dabba.
The dabbawallahs were a homogenous group in many ways. Its members, traditionally male, hailed from the same geographical regionknown as Mavla-Iocated east of the Sahyadri (Western Ghats) near Pune, and they spoke the same language (Marathi). They shared similar customs and traditions, such as gathering together for a week every April for a festival in their hometown. They wore the same dress, a loose white dhoti shirt, cotton pajamas and their trademark white oval cap.
All of these combined to form a distinct local identity for the dabbawallahs. They were easily recognized even in the busiest of locations. Pedestrians and commuters yielded to the dabbawallahs in order not to interfere with their service delivery. Seemingly always in a rush, the dabbawallahs were known for their reliability and work ethic. They ascribed to the traditional Indian belief that “work is worship.” Averaging 55 years in age, dabbawallahs were typically lean, agile, active and physically fit. While the minimum level of education of a dabbawallah was grade seven, most never got past grade eight schooling.
Each dabbawallah earned a monthly income between Rs5,OOO and Rs6,OOO. Out of this income, each dabbawallah was responsible for paying:
Rs. 120 for the monthly railway pass that allowed for unlimited access to Mumbai’s railways;
Rs. 60 for the maintenance of the bicycle or the pushcart (which were owned by the group or profit centre); and the compulsory monthly contribution of Rsl5 to the Trust.
The dabbawallah meal distribution network was characterized by a combination of a “baton relay system” in which dabbas were handed off between dabbawallahs at various points in the delivery process and a “hub and spokes” system in which the sorting of dabbas was done at specific railway locations from where individual spokes branched out for distribution. There was no local historical model on which this distribution network was designed. All design decisions were driven by the singular purpose of delivering a dabba in time for the customer’s lunch. The delivery processes had largely remained unchanged since their inception even though the environment of service delivery had changed. For example, the delivery system did not rely on the use of computers.
According to Medge:
“If we were to use computers, we. would be out of business. It is not because we do not know how to use computers but the system itself is not amenable to the use of technology in whatever form.
The only major change in the dabbawallahs’ delivery model was the fine-tuning of the coding system in 1966. The number of customers using the delivery service had continued to grow, and without some form of common identification that all dabbawallahs could follow, the sorting process at the hubs was likely to become overly time-consuming. Medge observed:
We decided to decentralize the coding at the level of groups and each group was free to develop its own coding system based on simple and easily identifiable numbers and signs. In time, each group gradually developed its own distinctive color code-from a spectrum of combinations of the seven primary colors-serving as the first line of identification for any dabbawallah”.
The workday for a dabbawallah started with the first delivery pick-up at 8:30 a.m. Leaving their Mumbai home, most of the time by bicycle, the dabbawallahs arrived punctually to the minute at the doorstep of each collection point, although they might not be wearing a watch. The collection point would typically be the client’s home. Customers were aware of their responsibilities in the delivery process. Each knew that if the dabba was not ready for pick-up, the dabbawallah simply moved on; the dabbawallah did not wait. Each dabbawallah was personally responsible for the daily delivery of 30 to 35 dabbas. Dabbawallahs found that number to be usually manageable in terms of personal memory and physical handling capacity.
8:25 a.m. The dabba is filled with lunch at the client’s kitchen and kept outside the door of the residence.
8:30 a.m. The dabbawallah arrives, picks up the dabba and moves on knocking at the door only if the dabba is not seen. Under normal circumstances there is no interaction with any member of the client’s household.
8:38 a.m. The dabba is placed on the bicycle or pushcart together with dabbas collected from other customers.
9:20 a.m. Bicycles and pushcarts drawn by individual dabbawallahs arrive from various collection centres to the suburban railway station.
9:30 a.m. The sorting operation begins with dabbas sorted according to destinations and placed in cartages that are specific to each destination. The cartages come in two standard sizes, accommodating 24 and 48 dabbas each.
9:41 a.m. The suburban train arrives. The cartages, normally numbering five to six, are loaded into the special compartment located next to the driver’s cabin.
10:21 a.m. The train arrives at one of the major hubs. The cartages are unloaded and bundled with those arriving from other collection centres. They are resorted according to destinations.
11:05 a.m. Cartages are loaded into the suburban train for onward journey to the final destination terminals.
11:45 a.m. The suburban train reaches the terminal station. Cartages are unloaded and dabbas are re-sorted, now according to specific delivery routes.
12:1 0 p.m. Dabbas are placed in destination-specific cartages and hitched typically on to bicycles or pushcarts for delivery to individual clients.
12:30 p.m. The dabba is delivered at the doorstep of the client’s workplace.
The delivery process is reversed in the afternoon. The empty dabba is picked up between 1: 15 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. for its return to the client’s home early that evening (e.g. by 5:30 p.m.).
The hub was essentially a mid-point station in the suburban railway network where trains converged before branching out to other parts of the city. Dadar, Bandra, Andheri and Kurla were the four major hubs for the dabbawallahs’ meal distribution network (see Exhibit 5). As epicentres that had to be passed through while moving from one end of the city to the other, the hubs were crucial links in the delivery system. They were also places where delivery errors could take place. That was why each of the hubs was actively managed by the mukadams, who stepped in to co-ordinate the sorting operation at each hub. As trains kept arriving in rapid succession, it became imperative to orchestrate three activities-sorting, loading and unloading-simultaneously. Doing so was a challenge during Mumbai’s rush hour when thousands of commuters were also getting on or off each train. Given the tight time schedule for Mumbai’s railways, the dabbawallahs had to complete their tasks quickly and precisely.
From these hubs, the sorted dabbas spoked out to various destinations-including the terminal stations of the city railway-where a third set of dabbawallahs was waiting to take over. The dabbas were off-loaded at various terminals and re-sorted, depending now upon specific customer location information, such as the street, building and the floor. The dabbas were then handed over to the fourth set of handlers, individual dabbawallahs, who were assigned to specific delivery routes in Mumbai city. Placing the dabbas on pushcarts or bicycles, or in some cases carried by hand or in crates on top of their heads (a full crate of dabbas could weigh up to 100 kilograms), the dabbawallahs delivered the home-cooked lunches to the designated recipient by 12:30 p.m.
An hour or two later, the empty dabbasdropped off by the satiated client at the same spot used for dabba pick-up–were collected to be routed backwards on their return journey. In short, each dabba was picked up at the source by one dabbawallah for transport to the railway terminal, sorted and loaded by a second dabbawallah, unloaded and re-sorted at the hub or destination station by a third dabbawallah and delivered by a fourth dabbawallah to the home from which the dabba was picked up earlier in the day. The exact combination of dabbawallahs used each day varied with the volume and density of traffic, but it remained the same on the return route.
Since each dabba traveled through four sets of hands each day, it was important to identify· and monitor the dabbas while in transit. This was done through a system of codes painted on the top of each dabba’s exterior. The originating station and the destination station were the primary codes. They were crucial for the sorting operations that took place at each of the hubs, and they were normally identified by alphabets that any sorter could recognize. The other encoded data included the apartment, floor, building and street the dabba originated from and was to be delivered to. The codes included symbols (e.g. dashes, dots, etc.), alphabets, numbers and other forms of notation which likely made little sense outside of the dabbawallah community, but which the dabbawallahs recognized and understood instantly. The movement of the dabbas was monitored solely through these codes and client names were not utilized.
Pulling one dabba aside, Medge explained:
The codes “K-BO-IO-19/A/15” on top of this dabba mean the following: K was the dabbawallah who picked it up; BO meant Borivali, the area from where the dabba was collected; I0 referred to the Nariman Point area, the destination; 19/N15 referred to the 19th building; A was the dabbawallah who delivered it; and 15 was the floor of the building where the customer’s workplace was located.
  1. Comment on how following issues may be affecting the dabbawallah system:
  • Competition and resulting shrink in customer base
  • Lifestyle Changes
  • Workforce Management
  1. How do the dabbawallahs find recruits?
  2. How can an incentive system based on “equal pay for all” work?
  3. Do the dabbawallahs know their clients?
  4. How does the dabbawallah system ensure that the individual links in the delivery network do not break down?
  5. How is the Trust dealing with the issue of growth?
  6. How is the Trust coping with dabbawallah competitors?
  7. The world around you is changing but the dabbawallahs have not changed; why not?
  8. Is there a future for Dabbawallahs?
  9. Following are the foundations for the success of the dabbawallah service
  • Low-Cost Delivery
  • Delivery Reliability
  • Decentralization
  • Suburban Railway Network
  • Perceived Equality.


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