Go to Top

Dabbawallas, UPS, and FedEx

We've ranted time and time again about how simple visual methods can often be more efficient and effective than complex software.  Thanks to our friend Joseph Weisenthal at The Stalwart for also taking up this noble crusade, mentioning Evolving Excellence, and pointing us to a recent article in The New York Times that should make UPS and FedEx cry.

In India, where many traditions are being rapidly overturned as a result of globalization, the practice of eating a home-cooked meal for lunch lives on. To achieve that in this sprawling urban amalgamation of an estimated 25 million people, where long commutes by train and bus are routine, Mumbai residents rely on an intricately organized, labor-intensive operation that puts some automated high-tech systems to shame. It manages to deliver tens of thousands of meals to workplaces all over the city with near-clockwork precision.

How in the world, or at least in India, do they pull this off?

At the heart of this unusual network is a chain of delivery men called dabbawallas. The word comes from tiffin dabba, a colonial reference to a box containing a light meal, and walla, the man who carries. The precision and efficiency of the dabbawallas have been likened to the Internet, where packets identified by unique markers are ferried to their destination by means of a complex network.

The service is at once simple and complex. A network of wallas picks up the boxes from customers’ homes or from people who cook lunches to order, then delivers the meals to a local railway station. The boxes are hand-sorted for delivery to different stations in central Mumbai, and then re-sorted and carried to their destinations.

By now our friends over at JSLEAN are probably salivating over the potential for complex software systems to analyze part families and flows and such nonsense.  Our friends at SAP and Oracle are probably daydreaming about hiring a few thousand more software engineers to create linked high speed databases handling bazillions of transactions per millisecond.

But most readers of this blog are smarter.  They're thinking of the power of simple visual controls.

The secret of the system is in the colored codes painted on the side of the boxes, which tell the dabbawallas where the food comes from and which railway stations it must pass through on its way to a specific office in a specific building in downtown Mumbai.

And it doesn't happen just in the morning.  In the afternoon the boxes are returned to their originations using the reverse process.  Have you tried using visual controls that mean the exact opposite at different times of the day?

After lunch, the service reverses, and the empty boxes are delivered back home.  In the afternoon, the thousands of dabbawallas collect empty lunch boxes and board the trains back. Rarely has Mr. Shivekar missed a delivery or delivered the wrong lunch — on the rare occasion he has, the painted numbers on the boxes had worn off.

And the next day they do it all over again.  Perfectly.  Remember the lesson of the dabbawallas the next time someone tries to sell you a software solution.

Share Button

3 Responses to "Dabbawallas, UPS, and FedEx"

  • Stacy
    10 June 2007 - 7:46 pm

    Great story. I was going to comment on the obvious high labor content making it impossible for that system to work outside of India, then I read in the article itself how the system is also taking root in some immigrant areas of the U.S. and western Europe. Maybe UPS should be looking over their shoulder!

  • Triantafyllos KATSARELIS
    11 June 2007 - 4:07 am

    As a Senior Partner (in charge of Quality Mgmt. and Excellence)of an Athens- Greece based Civil Engineering Design & Consulting company(very specialised and “high level” services with about 25 high qualified Engineers and CAD draftpersons),I’introduced this procedure of “assesment & review” of consecutive drafts : each of the 3 levels of responsibility has its OWN COLOR of pencil. No piles of sheets with remarks, no ERP.

  • Quang
    13 June 2007 - 2:38 am

    good post