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Dabbawalas: Lunch to lectures

Mumbai?s dabbawala could be as efficient delivering lunch boxes as handling laptops.

india Updated: Jun 25, 2006 02:36 IST
Ashok Das

Mumbai’s dabbawala could be as efficient delivering lunch boxes as handling laptops.

When the Indian School of Business invited the dabbawalas to speak to their students, they hardly expected a power point presentation. But Raghunath Medge and Gangaram Talekar, president and secretary of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier's Association, proved that appearances can be deceptive and took the audience by surprise with a slick power point presentation.

Medge admitted that the 5,000-strong workforce — which fights traffic and crowds in Mumbai everyday to deliver some 2 lakh lunch boxes — was illiterate or semi-literate. But, he said, the dabbawalas ensure their performance remains robust. In keeping with the changing times, they have even begun inviting “dabba booking” through SMS and launched a website, the two guest speakers said.

Medge and Talekar spoke of their organisational structure, working style and delivery systems, for which the organisation has received accolades from many quarters, including from Prince Charles. They also discussed how their organisation had become a subject of study in top B-schools in India and abroad, and recently secured Six-Sigma certification.

More than the presentation, it was their humour and down-to-earth attitude that won over the audience, who were literally in splits as the duo went about explaining the dabbawala definition of things. “Thumbs up,” Talekar said, raising his thumb and referring to the status of the workforce and their illiteracy.

“What came across was the sincere belief of dabbawalas in their role as providers of food. Their motivation stems from the desire to ensure no individual subscribing to their service goes hungry, on any working day. Though their logistics and delivery processes can be interpreted as akin to the ‘hub and spoke system’, or even ‘Just-in-Time’ and ‘Network Management’, one certainly can’t find an equivalent in management parlance to their motivational tools,” said an ISB faculty member.