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Friday, September 20, 2013

the Mumbai dabbawallahs ~ exemplifying the spirit of commitment and organised work

At first look, they seemed a bit odd ~ not the official dress that one would expect in a  business meeting ~ and far different than the normal South Indian way…  In our Company, we have had business meetings, have listened to various speakers, have seen nice powerpoints and … but this one at  Rajpark on 29th Aug 13 was different.  In focus were 3 men with white kurtas with a typical ‘white cap’…. It was told that they have ‘six sigma quality certificate’ though they reportedly did not even apply for the same. This post is nothing about their Quality Certificate, global business fan club, appreciation from Prince Charles, Virgin Group Richard Branson and more……… but some aspects which genuinely impressed me and most of my other colleagues present there.

Taste buds contain the receptors for taste. Located around the small structures on the upper surface of the tongue, this is what detects the five elements of taste perception.  It is stated that on an average, the human tongue has 2,000–8,000 taste buds. Many of us just devour the food that is kept on the plate, some taste it, some enjoy and appreciate the maker….~ there are connoisseurs who are experts in the matters of taste and it is very difficult to please them unless real quality food is delivered.

Chennai [specifically Triplicane] is bachelor’s paradise… and those staying away from families eat in Mess / small hotels. There is this ‘Ratna Café’ in Triplicane, very famous for its sambar idly.  There are chains of restaurants like Saravana Bhavan, Hot chips, Vasantha Bhavan, Woodlands…. and more  having become famous for the tasty food that they give to their customers ~ and customers would not mind travelling distance to have the food in their preferred place, even when many hotels would be available in the vicinity. 

You also find many two-wheelers zipping around making that ‘delivery’ [not of pizzas] of the choicest food ordered ~ why would somebody order a dosa or idly from a restaurant far away – when you have hotels, mess and more in dozens… !!

In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is a step-by-step procedure for calculations. Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning. Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress was all about the code-breaking supercomputer and its breaking codes using algorithms……

Getting back to the men in white referred in the early part of this post – the ones who have a Six Sigma quality certificate and a global business fan club that includes Prince Charles and flamboyant owner of Virgin Group Richard Branson. The men seen at the start the Mumbai's famous dabbawalas. Dabba would mean a box ~ wala is a suffix denoting a doer or holder.  In school days, we used to carry our lunch in tiffin-boxes [aluminium and later stainless steel make boxes- far ordinary than the modern day Tupperware !]

In the crowded metropolis of  Mumbai inhabited by people of various cultures, people prefer having the meals made at home [with love and affection by their mothers and spouses] rather than eating outside at hotels….. getting back home for lunch is no option at all – going by the distance that people travel and the transport facilities available.. the trains are crowded and people do start rather early in the day for work… and thus arose the need for somebody carrying lunch boxes from home – the ‘dabbawalas’

This is something on ‘dabbawalas’ 0r tiffin-box carriers !! ~ would you need somebody for bringing your lunch box – may not be in Chennai – but in Mumbai it is a big, neat, well organized business. It would look pretty simple – somebody who runs the errand of picking your lunch box from home, delivers to you at your office, then picks the empty box delivering it back home. It for sure needs specilisation, commitment, highly organized skills to run this service.   They are more than a century old ~ and go about their business in style irrespective of Sun or shine braving the vagaries of weather, congested traffic, milling population and more.

One need to understand the magnitude of dealing with millions of customers and keeping them all happy.  A force of 5000 odd men – working non-stop on all days except Sunday and delivering 200,000 boxes every day… amazing.  On the basis of a Harvard Business Review it is stated that the wrong-delivery is less than 1 in six million.  Close to impossible task, indeed.

Their rise to celebrity was after the visit of Prince Charles and his invitation to royal wedding in Apr 2005; Virgin Chairman Bronson visiting them, BBC producing a documentary and then loads of appreciation in the native press.

It was astonishing to hear and understand a bit of the complex procedure where the dabba gets picked at home in a locality, travels in bicycle [or on head] to a local railway stations, gets consolidated, heads for the nearest railway station to the destination, again grouped to be carried in bicyles or as head-loads to the workplace, delivered to individuals ~ and then the reverse process happens ~ all with electronic precision and almost nil error…  

~~towards the middle itself, one was so awe-struck that it did not looked a wonder when the spokesperson explained at length on how Prince Charles evinced interest in meeting them [or rather seeing their pattern of work] and how the Dabbawalas took the call on timing and location of the meet.  Prince Charles was so impressed that Dabbawalas were officially invited for the Royal wedding and the nice gesture was indeed a deserving one for their commitment.

Each dabbawala, [most of whom are only 8th standard] is a share holder – is not an employee and thus exhibits utmost sincerity. The spokesperson claimed with satisfaction that in more than century of service, their organization never ceased work – but for a solitary occasion, when they went on strike expressing their solidarity with Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption.  A day in dabbawalahs’ successful life is not complete with local train and cycle – the important cogs in their wheel of success.

The ones we had occasion to meet were the Founder president of the Mumbai Dabbawala Association- Mr.Raghunath D. Medge; General secretary Gangaram Talekar and Arvind Talekar who was the spokesperson….

Tracing  their history and path to continued success, Mr Talekar said that it was once  threads which provided the code to success. Not any complex algorithm or path-breaking code developed by a Programming architect. He categorically denied the mistaken conception that they were in handling ‘waste food management too’. After the hour-length talk, there was a barrage of Questions.  The responses were simple, straight and practical – the ones that came with ‘no home-work’ or with no extra lacing.  The answers and lecture clearly displayed their commitment, their simple and honest way of life, ethical ways of dealing with their customers, the pride with which they carry on, the devotion to duty, the strong belief in their ideals and fear of God.

the code now used…

Most of us left the hotel admiring their commitment ~ the next time you happen to see them in Mumbai, sure you would look them with more respect and affection….. thanks to my Office for providing this opportunity.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.

31st Aug 2013.


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