Home Management 4 Inspiring Management lessons from ‘The Mumbai Dabbawalas’

4 Inspiring Management lessons from ‘The Mumbai Dabbawalas’

by Poornashri Anandakrishnan

The advent of technology, computers, the internet, and phones should have made living easier but how did it make everyone’s lives very much engaged and busy? A happy meal with family turned into a boxed lunch with office gossips. Amongst all the new inventions and development, education is not the only key to success.

Good organization & planning will bring the synergy needed for operational and service excellence, reviews a Harvard Business article which has taken into its study the most popular, flawless Mumbai Dabbawala system.


The tale runs back to the year 1890 in Mumbai when a Parsi Banker wanted to enjoy home-cooked food on his office table and thus employed a person who would bring him lunch daily. This inspired lot of other people and the demand for the lunchbox transporters grew rapidly.

Colloquially the concerned person who brings the lunchboxes came to be known as a ‘Dabbawala’ and the name has stayed the same until now. This ‘century-old’ job has been through numerous events of national importance and remains unshattered. Dabbawalas wear long white kurta with a Gandhi Cap and ride through the city delivering lunchboxes to more than 200000 people in Mumbai.

Their means of delivery and pickup is via cycles & rails. Churchgate, Bombay Central, Victoria terminus are the 3 key train stations where we could spot these fast hands especially with steel crates filled with nearly 200 lunch bags each. After picking up the ‘dabbas’ from home it passes through 4-5 dabbawalas pedalling and running across suburban trains.

Once boarded off, the sorting of boxes happens near the station and the white caps collect their bags leaving it dangling in their cycles and storm off into the Mumbai traffic to deliver for lunchtime. Later these cleanly licked empty boxes are on return journey to their respective homes.

The present team delivery system was designed by Mahadeo Havaji Bachche with 100 dabbawalas. The code of identification was just colors initially but with the increasing population, diversion in routes, and demand for the freight, alphanumeric coding is followed now.

The guide book of Dabbawalas has 4 mutually synchronized elements of management:



A flat organizational structure is followed where the dabbawalas are organized roughly into 200 units of 25 each which is perfectly working for a low-cost delivery system. They are paid $7 to $9 / per month for each box summing up to Rs. 8000 / month.

Though there are other rivals, Dabbawalas stand out and keep the trust and service uphold till date. The railways set the pace and rhythm of work. The very little time they have to load and unload keeps the sync and the system working. Precisely,40 seconds to board the crates and 20 seconds to offload.

To tackle with performative slips, extra workers are filled to manage delay during collecting, sorting, transporting, finance, and customer relations. When a single dabbawala misses a train it would have a cascading effect and delay thousands of other boxes.

This regulatory mechanism works on a clockwork design. A faster pace generates waste, and a slower one doesn’t meet demand. This rhythm drives everything and exposes deviations from the norm.


The high quality and low-cost service are due to self-organized democracy. They do the hiring, logistics, customer acquisition and retention, and conflict resolution on their own. Guidelines monitor dabbawalas but they are considered as entrepreneurs as they can negotiate their prices with their customers with regards to the distance of their homes and delivery points.

A beautiful mutual understanding prevails amongst these people as one won’t steal other’s customers. Once committed to a lunch bag he remains with it forever gaining all the trust. Recruitment happens according to need and demand. Once selected training is given for 6 months by the group members.



The right process is following everything in the organization, from managing information, strict adherence to standards, and the built-in buffer. The coding is unique and has 3 markings on the lid of the ‘Dabba’.

The first one is a bold number denoting the neighbourhood of the owner, the second contains a group of characters denoting to the dabbawala himself and the office and floor number to which it must be delivered. The third contains shapes, colours, or even motif signs indicating the station of origin.

These codes are just hints and not full addresses. A full address would distract their minds and would not serve to be quick and as effective as codes. Following this, the delta airlines altered their boarding passes to be clutter-free by just highlighting the destination city.

Managing built-in buffer is extremely important especially in a highly variable environment, as organizations can’t always run as inclined as they might like. They need extra capacity to handle problems and emergencies.


The system empowers frontline workers to take action—just as TOYOTA does in its manufacturing plants. Strict rules are followed especially when a dabbawala delivers late or keeps a customer waiting during lunch frequently is fined or fired. Also, those customers who delay the lunchbox preparation during pickup are dropped off the list.

The Dabbawala groups are very friendly and helpful. All the workers belong to a particular community and are bestowed to do the same job for generations. Aged between 19 to 65, everyone is relatives and are closely connected and has the same culture, language, values, work ethic, diet, and religious beliefs.

They are mostly uneducated and this homogeneity creates a strong identity and sets boundaries that are necessary for a highly variable environment.


Even the Mumbai floods in 2005 didn’t shatter their dedication and mission. They have been on duty during all the working days despite any calamities or troubles. This reinforcing system has gone a long way and is educating so many. With digitalization, they have a very active website with all the details. Proudly all the workers hold an equity share in their trust and are considered the real owners.

Lets pedal with the dabbawalas and learn that with the right system, an organization doesn’t need extraordinary talent to achieve extraordinary performance.

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