Mumbai’s ‘Dabbawala’ a lesson on Service Excellence

This is part of a story written by Stefan Thomke with the support of Harvard Business School, who studied the dabbawalas reliable service level achieved with a poorly educated decentralized work force. They have an overall system whose basic pillars- organization, management, process and culture- are perfectly aligned and mutually reinforcing. In the corporate world it’s uncommon for managers to strive for that kind of synergy. For those who don’t know dabbawalas- they’re people who deliver meals in lunch boxes to the working population of Mumbai. Their mission: Delivering food on time, every time.

The HBR story is used to highlight how one can use ordinary workers to achieve extra ordinary results with the right systems and governance.

MANAGEMENT a self organized democracy 
The study noted, dabbawalas manage themselves with respect to hiring, logistics, customer acquisition and retention, and conflict resolution. Each dabbawala is an entrepreneur who is responsible for negotiating prices with his own customers. However, governing committees set guidelines for prices. Dabbawalas own their relationships with customers and they’re encouraged to seek out new customers, even in a building served by a colleague. However, once relationship is established, no other dabbawala is permitted to steal the customer.

When someone wants to join a local dabbawala group, the group will assess whether there’s enough demand to add another person. New hires are trained on the job by the group. After a probation period they can buy into the business and become an equity partner. Workers with more than 10 years of experience serve as supervisors. Every group has a supervisor who supervises the coding, sorting,loading and unloading of dabbas and are responsible for resolving disputes. Members elect representatives from among the supervisors to serve on two managing committees that meet monthly to tackle operational and organizational issues as well as problems that cannot be resolved at local level.

The above management style along with the clock work design and a strong culture drives  the process to be simple, flexible and rigorous. The two paragraphs above sound like the story of audit firms of the past. However, by complicating the processes and the lack of  uniform culture and synergy has led to affect service excellence and focus.

When confronted with negative results companies mistakenly think that the remedy is to hire some stars. These so called stars  spend more time studying and analysing information not understanding the culture, processes and organization design which lack synergy. To make it worse if there is no direction provided, that’s what you call a headless chicken syndrome! The dabbawalas have shown that with the right system, an organization doesn’t need extraordinary talent to achieve extraordinary performance. Leaders who see themselves as system architects can obtain the same results.

For the full story ref BUSINESS TODAY magazine, Dec 2012.

About surenraj

“Views expressed are my own”
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One Response to Mumbai’s ‘Dabbawala’ a lesson on Service Excellence

  1. Pradeeps says:

    Of course the leader needs to understand systems & processes or listen to people who know?

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