Dabbawallas share their management secrets with IITians

The future managers of the country have a lot to learn from Mumbai's dabbawallas, reports Neha Bhayana.

india Updated: Oct 29, 2006 22:48 IST

5000 men. 400,000 transactions. Over 70 kilometers. No technology. Six hours every day. Error rate 1 in 16 million. One simple principle: Work is worship.

The future managers of the country have a lot to learn from Mumbai's dabbawallas.

On Sunday, dabbawalla Mahesh Tripathi turned management guru and spoke to students at IIT's Shaliesh J Mehta School of Management. The talk was part of a two-day business festival, Avenues 2006, which saw the participation of over 500 students from top business schools across the country.

Students from IIMs, IITs and other top engineering and b-schools in the country participated in the events at IIT’s school of management this weekend. The main event was Colloseum with a stake of Rs. 1 lakh and 5 games covering all management functions.
Students were given different scenarios and had to come up with workable business plans.
For Marxus maxim, teams were given Rs. 1000 and had to buy items from nearby shops and later sell to make as much profit as possible. Teams were therefore scurrying around the IIT campus on Sunday; offering chilled juices and head massages for Rs. 10.

Top awards for both these events were bagged by National Institute of Industrial Engineering, Mumbai.

"Almost all dabbawallas are standard VIII fail. They cannot read or write but their work is their God so they never fail," said Tripathi, unveiling the simple secrets of their unerring accuracy—low costs, customer focus and hard work.

Dabbawallas ferry two lakh tiffin boxes from homes to offices and back every afternoon. Each dabbawalla carries a basket of tiffins weighing 75-80kgs and travels by the local train, cycle or foot.

When he is at work it is "war time" and no traffic signals or train delays can stop him from delivering the tiffin on time, revealed Tripathi. "Hardly any dabbawalla has a watch but they are never late. Time management is a way of life for us," he said.

The dabbawallas work in a flat organisation; all their earnings are equally distributed. They have a "no-strike" record and paint codes on tiffins to ensure the right tiffin reaches the right person. 116 years after the first tiffins were delivered, the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association has an annual turnover of Rs 18 crore and a six sigma certification of quality.

This has made them an awe-inspiring business model for many but Tripathi said that for them it is only delivering that matters; the awards and certificates are gathering dust at their tiny Churchgate office.

Students loved the talk. For once it was not a suited, booted corporate but a man in white pyjamas and a Gandhi topi lecturing them. "It is shocking how they do this without the help of any technology or technique and never make mistakes," said Tushar Upadhyay, a first year BTech student from IIT.

"We learn about strategic planning and time management in our classes but these semi-literate men have actually achieved it," said Avneet Bhatia, a management student.

First Published: Oct 29, 2006 22:43 IST