What can a leader like you learn from someone who spends most of his day riding a bike and feeding the masses in India? Quite a bit, it turns out.
First, a definition: a dabbawala is a person in India, most commonly found in Mumbai, who works in a unique industry. For a monthly fee of around $2.50 per month, businessmen and women have their meals sent from home, mostly in the suburbs, to their place of work and then collected and delivered back to their houses for use the next day. Each day more than 200,000 lunch boxes get moved by 5,000 dabbawalas. The dabbawalas have become highly specialized and integrated into the Mumbai culture over their century long existence. What makes the dabbawalas most interesting is that most of them are illiterate, but extraordinarily efficient.
Mumbai is the fourth largest city in the world with a population of over 12 million, which makes the dabbawalas’ efficiency that much more remarkable. The delivery process is a supply chain: a collecting person picks up the lunch boxes from the homes who then takes them to a sorting location. At the sorting location, each box is separated based upon the railway stations it must pass through. There are local dabbawalas at each station who collect their respective groups of boxes and perform the delivery and post-lunch collection. The secret of the system is the colored codes on each boxes, which tells the dabbawalas where the food came from and which railway stations it must pass through on its way to the final destination.
The supply chain has remained remarkably low-tech, just now starting to take delivery orders via SMS. The commitment and dedication of the individual dabbawala allows for a system that has no form of documentation and has just three simple layers of management. Each dabbawala contributes some form of capital to the organization (ex: a bike or wooden crate for hauling) in exchange for a monthly division of earnings, about $40-$100 per month regardless of their role in the organization.
Forbes Magazine has found the reliability of the system to be equal to the six sigma standard. They make less than one mistake in every 6 million deliveries. How is this possible with most of the staff being illiterate and not utilizing technology?
Below are 3 lessons I think project managers can learn from the dabbawalas:
1) Customer relationships matter: The local dabbawalas know each customer well and their bonds of trust allow them to achieve their mutually beneficial goals. One late lunch pick-up means every downstream item is delayed. Proper customer relationship management can provide long term improvements as evidenced by the dabbawala business growing 5%-10% yearly. Do you trust your customers (in this case, your project team and the key stakeholders) and do they trust you?
2) Technology isn’t everything: Without using modern technology, with the exception of recently developed SMS ordering, they deliver over 200,000 lunches daily…all without making a mistake. For the dabbawalas, the adoption of technology may actually decrease their reliability. It is important to analyze the technological needs of your organization, but not rely on it so much that it hinders effective communication and trust. Do you rely on technology so much that you neglect the good, old-fashioned face-to-face and one-on-ones?
3) Flatten your team structure and empower your employees: Only 3 levels of management handle the entire supply chain. With over 5,000 dabbawalas, most of which are illiterate, trust in these employees allows for success. On the other hand, the employees must trust the managers. The system depends on overall teamwork and strict time management. How much do you try to control your teams vs. empowering them to take ownership and run with key tasks?
For more information about the dabbawalas, I’d recommend you check out this video: