An Extraordinary System

The logistics organisation

In Mumbai there is an organisation that delivers meals to office workers. It is called the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association.  That is a bit of a mouthful, they are more commonly known as Dabbawalas (lunch box men).  Think deliveroo and you wouldn’t be too wide of the mark, except that meals are delivered from customers homes and not restaurants.

A short history lesson

The Dabbawalas started deliveries in the late 19th century when India was under British rule.  Thousands of people had migrated to Bombay (as it was then) looking for a better life.  The offices they worked in didn’t have canteens, people commuted long distances and their was huge variation in ethnic diets.  So most people brought packed lunches to work.  By lunchtime these were cold and unappetising.

The Dabbawalas sprang up to fill a need.  They delivered freshly cooked meals from workers homes in the suburbs to their offices in the city centre.  The tradition lives on to this day.

Now, every lunchtime the organisation delivers between 175 and 200 thousand bespoke meals.  It employs five thousand people and it is claimed that they have 6 sigma levels of accuracy.  This isn’t strictly true, but they are good enough for the rumour to flourish.

The surprising thing

The Dabbawalas are a collective of mostly illiterate men (and a few women).

They don’t have a large logistics system or a fleet of vans.  Their only sizeable investment is in bicycles. They make all these deliveries without an iPad in sight. What they do have, however, is a finely honed system.

The system

When I say a system I don’t mean “web enabled logistictech 2.0”.  I mean an intermeshed system of processes, people, equipment and motivations.  The whole thing dovetails together to create the desired result:


The outcome the Dabbawalas are striving to meet is simple:

To serve customers on time

It is clearer and more powerful than the mission statements of many other organisations. They are not striving: “to consistently and economically deliver world-class customer service that delights the customer”. Nor is their mission: “to always convey a passion for the customer and to consistently deliver the best service experience”.

They just want to serve their customers on time.  Everything else revolves around that.


The Dabbawalas take great pride in the job that they do. Mumbai has a diverse cultural mix. Muslims who don’t eat pork, Jains who don’t eat onions, potatoes or garlic and Christians who will eat pretty much anything.  It could be offensive to deliver the wrong food to the wrong person. The Dabbawalas see their task as important as delivering medicine to the sick.  To quote one: “Feeding people is a worthwhile occupation”.


The Dabbawalas are organised into many groups.  Each group is self-managed.  New members buy their way into the organisation.  It costs about six months worth of wages.  Consequently there is a huge sense of ownership of the organisation and the service it delivers.

Dabbawalas are free to negotiate with their customers.  They can also change and adapt their processes to improve performance.

Each of the groups has a couple of extra workers to act as a capacity buffer.  Everybody is cross trained in the core activities; be that transporting, sorting, delivering, negotiating or collecting payments.

The Dabbawalas have certain rules that they obey.  For example they don’t eat until they have completed all their deliveries and they never open a tiffin box.

In return for this, and for what is essentially manual work, the Dabbawalas earn a reasonable wage.


Every morning tiffin boxes are collected from the homes of customers.  They are then transported by bicycle, cart, hand and rail into the centre of Mumbai.  The Dabbawalas run a hub and spoke system; each tiffin box (or dabba) can change hands 3 or 4 times on its journey.

To make sure that every box finds its way, they are all coded with a series of marks and numbers.  These show the recipient, sender and route that the box should take.  The code is learnt by heart by the Dabbawalas.

Once the boxes are delivered the Dabbawalas break for their own lunch. They then set about collecting the boxes for the return journey.

The organisation is so reliable it some customers use the returning boxes to transport their wages home. It is safer than carrying cash.


The heart of the system is Mumbai’s ever punctual rail network. The boxes and the men who carry them use the cargo compartments on each train. The railway is augmented by a host of baskets, bicycles and carts that are used for the “last mile” from station to office.

Where helpful the groups have invested in more modern tools.  You can book a delivery via SMS and they have a web site that you can place an order on, but that is the extent of their information technology.


What is interesting though is what the system doesn’t do.

Customers can’t ask for deliveries of unusually shaped dabbas (tins).  Uniform shapes and sizes help the Dabbawalas to load trains and bicycles efficiently.

Customers are expected to have the meals ready for pickup at predetermined times, if they are not ready then the system can flounder.  The Dabbawalas will drop any customer who is routinely late and expects them to hang around.

Some business schools have suggested to the Dabbawalas that they use motorcycles instead of bicycles. That hasn’t happened. As one of the senior Dabbawalas says:

“Then our people would have to learn how to use them, get driver’s licenses, deal with the Regional Transport Office, and costs would increase for the customer.”

Besides which bicycles are easier to manoeuver through narrow lanes and traffic clogged streets.

The power of the system

The service is simple to describe yet complex to execute.  It would be difficult for any other organisation to copy it.  Ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results when they have an extraordinary system.

How does your system compare?

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Image by Meena Kadri