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Abstract: The Dabbawalas who provide a lunch delivery service in Mumbai have been in the business for over

100 years. In 1998, Forbes Global magazine conducted an analysis and gave them a Six Sigma rating of efficiency. The case examines how the Dabbawalas operate. It describes their delivery process and coding system and how they work as one team to achieve a common goal. The case also explores the future of the Dabbawalas' service in light of the changing environment.

Issues: How an entrepreneurial venture starts. The reasons behind the success of an enterprise. How a traditional business can survive threats from the external environment through the years.

"A model of managerial and organizational simplicity" - C K Prahalad, Professor, University of Michigan Business School and Management Guru, commenting on the Dabbawalas' operations.1 "The fascinating story of Mumbai's Dabbawalas is an inspiration to all organizations aspiring to compete in the global market place" - Pradeep B. Deshpande, President of Six Sigma and Advanced Controls, Inc. and Professor of Chemical Engineering, University of Louisville.2
A Six Sigma Performance Every day, battling the traffic and crowds of Mumbai city, the Dabbawalas,3 also known as Tiffinwallahs,4 unfailingly delivered thousands of dabbas to hungry people and later returned the empty dabbas to where they came from. The Dabbawalas delivered either home-cooked meals from clients' homes or lunches ordered for a monthly fee, from women who cook at their homes according to the clients' specifications. The Dabbawalas' service was used by both working people and school children. In 1998, Forbes Global magazine, conducted a quality assurance study on the Dabbawalas' operations and gave it a Six Sigma efficiency rating of 99.999999; the Dabbawalas made one error in six million transactions. That put them on the list of Six Sigma5 rated companies, along with multinationals like Motorola and GE. Achieving this rating was no mean feat, considering that the Dabbawalas did not use any technology or paperwork, and that most of them were illiterate or semiliterate. Apart from Forbes, the Dabbawalas have aroused the interest of many other international organizations, media and academia. In 1998, two Dutch filmmakers, Jascha De Wilde and Chris Relleke made a documentary called 'Dabbawallahs, Mumbai's unique lunch service'. The film focussed on how the tradition of eating home-cooked meals, and a business based on that, could survive in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. In July 2001, The Christian Science Monitor, an international newspaper published from Boston, Mass., USA, covered the Dabbawalas6 in an article called 'Fastest Food: It's Big Mac vs. Bombay's dabbawallahs'. In 2002, Jonathan Harley, a reporter, did a story on the Dabbawalas with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). In 2003, BBC also aired a program on the Dabbawalas, which was part of a series on unique businesses of the world.

In 2003, Paul S. Goodman and Denise Rousseau, both faculty at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration of Carnegie Mellon University, made their first full-length documentary called 'The Dabbawallas'. According to the press release of the TV station presenting the documentary, "The film also serves as a counterpoint. Instead of asking how knowledge in developing countries can help less developed countries, this film focuses on how developed countries can learn from less developed countries".7 Back home, the Dabbawalas were invited to speak at Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)8 meets and at leading Indian business schools such as IIM, Bangalore and Lucknow. Background Note The origin of the Dabbawalas' lunch delivery service dates back to the 1890s during the British raj.9 At that time, people from various communities migrated to Mumbai for work. As there were no canteens or fast food centers then, if working people did not bring their lunch from home, they had to go hungry and invariably, lunch would not be ready when they left home for work. Besides, different communities had different tastes and preferences which could only be satisfied by a home-cooked meal. Recognizing the need, Mahadeo Havaji Bacche (Mahadeo), a migrant from North Maharashtra,10 started the lunch delivery service. For his enterprise, Mahadeo recruited youth from the villages neighboring Mumbai, who were involved in agricultural work. They were willing to come as the income they got from agriculture was not enough to support their large families, and they had no education or skills to get work in the city. The service started with about 100 Dabbawalas and cost the client Rs.2 a month. Gradually, the number of Dabbawalas increased and the service continued even though the founder was no more... Organizational Structure and Working Style The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers' Charity Trust had a very flat structure with only three levels, the Governing Council, the Mukadams11 and the Dabbawalas (Refer Exhibit I). From the Governing Council, a President and a Secretary were elected. The Governing Council held meetings once a month which were attended by the Mukadams and Dabbawalas. At these meetings, the Dabbawalas discussed their problems and explored possible solutions. The problems could be with the police, municipal corporation, customers, etc. They also adjudicated disputes among Dabbawalas using their own system. The Trust collected Rs.15 from each Dabbawala every month to maintain a welfare fund... Delivery System The Dabbawala service was available wherever the local trains ran in Mumbai as it was their primary mode of transportation. During the delivery process, the dabbas changed hands at least four times before they reached their destination... Will the Dabbawalas continue to feed the Hungry? The Dabbawalas have been in service for more than a hundred years, surviving the many changes in the city of Mumbai. However, the changing environment was threatening the survival of the Dabbawalas. "The second generation does not want to get into this business as the returns are not much," said one Dabbawala.22 Some Dabbawalas felt that there was danger of the business eventually dying out as they are unable to attract new recruits from within their families and relatives who had traditionally been their main source of recruitment...