Career Guide

Six sigma rating food delivery system shows how it's done

Dr Pawan Agarwal, director of the Mumbai Dabbawala Education Centre. Dr Pawan Agarwal, director of the Mumbai Dabbawala Education Centre.

Commitment, passion and customer satisfaction underpin the near flawless execution of the Dabbawalas. The 123-year-old food delivery sytem in Mumbai, India, has drawn the attention of the world with its six sigma rated operations. A six sigma rating equates to 99.9997% perfection, or 3.4 errors per one million transactions.

The word “dabbawalas” refers to the people delivering these parcels of food. “Dabba” means tiffin, and “wala” refers to the person carrying the tiffin.

Distinct from a catering system, the dabbawalas focus purely on food delivery. “Both the tiffin and food belong to the customer,” chimes Dr Pawan Agarwal, director of the Mumbai Dabbawala Education Centre. “The dabbawalas collect the food, deliver it to your office. Then they collect the empty tiffin and return it to your home in the evening.”

The rationale of this, he shares, is to spare housewives from having to prepare food very early in the morning. “In Mumbai traffic, if you need to start work at 9am, you’ll need to leave at 6am. That means that your wife will need to prepare the food at 5am,” Dr Pawan explains in a recent Leaderonomics Show. He adds that trains are also so severely congested with passengers, that it is highly impractical to lug a tiffin with you to work.

Everyday, 200,000 tiffins of food are delivered by the network of 5,000 dabbawalas in Mumbai. Each dabbawala is entrusted with approximately 40 tiffins, which can amount to 60kg to 6kg in weight. Like the customers they serve, they also commute via trains, but the dabbawalas travel in the coaches reserved for luggage.

Dr Pawan today travels the world to spread understanding of the Dabbawalas system that he describes as “thrilling”. His nine-year long research on the organisation, which included being involved in food deliveries himself, extended in both length and personal investment beyond the requirements of his doctorate. Today he runs the Mumbai Dabbawala Education Centre, a centre that provides free education to more than 8,000 children of dabbawalas.

To him, the principles of the Dabbawalas system can benefit any other country and industry. “You cannot replicate their system, but you can replicate their culture,” he says.

“Error is horror”

The Dabbawalas have been the subject of numerous documentaries and studies, no doubt for their ability to execute so flawlessly. They don’t employ specialised technology tools to keep track of deliveries, and the workforce is not highly educated. Yet every single day, they deliver tiffins with punctuality and accuracy.

Dr Pawan explains that errors are simply not an option to a dabbawala. “Human beings err,” he shares, “so we accept that it’s alright to make mistakes. But to the dabbawalas, error is horror.” Being late or mixing up deliveries are unacceptable.

“If the delivery is late, the company will not change their lunchtime. If you deliver the wrong tiffin, the customer will hit you!” especially if there are dietary restrictions such as being vegetarian. This strong sense of ownership ensures they leave no room for error.

Intertwined in this dedication to the customer, is a recognition of what role they play in society. According to Dr Pawan, the dabbawalas don’t see themselves as mere food transporters, because they also “bring the love of family by way of food.” Symbolically, they are transporting the care and love of the families to their customers. Perspective then, is a powerful thing.

How to reach perfection

For a system that has attained such an impressive feat, the three main reasons Dr Pawal gives for their quality standards are remarkably simple:

1. Customer satisfaction is number one

Customer satisfaction is the most important, says Dr Pawal. “If I have 200 customers, all 200 must be happy. People in business should have customer service as the primary objective,” he continues. “Don’t worry about money... If you target their needs and satisfy them, the quality of your service will increase, the goodwill of your business will increase, and the customer will be willing to pay anything.”

2. Care about what you do

Even though the dabbawalas are not highly educated, their passion for the job ensures they do not make mistakes. They invest care and attention to execute the tasks entrusted to them, and have been surprised by the amount of attention they have received from world media. The dabbawalas are less concerned about global reputation, and care more about just doing a good job.

3. Serving food is like serving God

The dabbawalas take pride in their role but also understand its significance. “Serving food is like serving God,” says Dr Pawal.

That is the attitude of every dabbawala, and evidence of this is seen in the way they carry themselves. “Ninety-five per cent of dabbawalas wear a chain to symbolise their commitment not to drink nor smoke,” he shares. “This is because when you are picking up or returning a tiffin, there is often no one home except the wife or sister. You must be proper.”

Sustained success and quality

As to how the Dabbawalas have managed to preserve their standard of quality since their beginnings in 1890, Dr Pawal attributes it to recruitment methods and work culture.

The Dabbawalas recruit by way of guarantors. A current dabbawala must personally vouch for an individual who expresses an interest to enter the group.

Before they can officially join the dabbawalas, the guarantor will take the applicant along with him for a few days to ensure the applicant has “the passion and commitment to deliver on time without mistakes”, Dr Pawal shares. Only once the applicant has successfully demonstrated that he possesses the right attitude will he be taken into the group.

The work culture of the Dabbawalas is one of high ethics, passion and commitment. According to Dr Pawan, since the culture is strong, this spreads naturally to newer people who join the group.

“If six people are working with passion, when a seventh person comes in, he will not dare to go against the culture and will work passionately himself.”

In this way, the work culture and the Dabbawalas’ standard of excellence today remains the same as it was 100 years ago.

For entrepreneurs and business leaders, Dr Pawan says “The key things are honesty, passion, commitment, time management, execution and customer satisfaction. Be passionate and think about your customers. Then you will have a very good business.”