The Economist, 10 July 2008
Business-school gurus take lessons from an unexpected source
As the warrior king who defeated the Mughals and founded the Maratha empire of Western India in the 17th century, Shivaji Bhosle is remembered as a tactical genius as well as a benevolent ruler. The direct descendants of his Malva-caste soldiers are also developing a reputation for organisational excellence. Using an elaborate system of colour-coded boxes to convey over 170,000 meals to their destinations each day, the 5,000-strong dabbawala collective has built up an extraordinary reputation for the speed and accuracy of its deliveries. Word of their legendary efficiency and almost flawless logistics is now spreading through the rarefied world of management consulting. Impressed by the dabbawalas’ “six-sigma” certified error rate—reportedly on the order of one mistake per 6m deliveries—management gurus and bosses are queuing up to find out how they do it.
The system the dabbawalas have developed over the years revolves around strong teamwork and strict time-management. At 9am every morning, home-made meals are picked up in special boxes, which are loaded onto trolleys and pushed to a railway station. They then make their way by train to an unloading station. The boxes are rearranged so that those going to similar destinations, indicated by a system of coloured lettering, end up on the same trolley. The meals are then delivered—99.9999% of the time, to the right address.
Harvard Business School has produced a case study of the dabbawalas, urging its students to learn from the organisation, which relies entirely on human endeavour and employs no technology. For Paul Goodman, a professor of organisational psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has made a documentary on the dabbawalas, this is one of the critical aspects of their appeal to Western management thinkers. “Most of our modern business education is about analytic models, technology and efficient business practices,” he says. The dabbawalas, by contrast, focus more on “human and social ingenuity”, he says.
Firms, both Indian and foreign, are similarly curious. Tata, Coca-Cola and Daimler have all invited dabbawalas to explain their model to managers. Last month it was the turn of delegates at an accountancy conference in Dubai. There are even plans within the organisation to create a consulting business. The dabbawalas, who all receive the same pay, are also seen as paragons of “bottom up” social entrepreneurship. C.K. Prahalad, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says they show how a home-grown business can help lift workers at the “bottom of the pyramid” out of poverty. They also contradict the stereotype of developing-world labourers as low-wage economic victims.
In Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses”, one of the main characters, Gibreel Farishta, worked as a dabbawala before going on to become a film star. The deliverymen no longer need a career change to get noticed.