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India mastered order fulfillment and delivery logistics long ago.
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A crash course
Every day in Mumbai, hundreds of thousands of people get their midday meals delivered. Across the city, an order gets screwed up about once every two months, or one every sixteen million deliveries, an error rate comparable to the most efficient companies on earth. The distinctive lunchboxes they arrive in are called dabba, or tiffins; the several thousand masters of the trade are called dabbawalas, which means “box carrier.”
The tiffins themselves are ingeniously designed—a set of two, three, or four round, stainless steel containers that stack into a tall cylinder, held in place by a simple metal frame that serves as handle and fastener. The bottom container is typically the largest, and meant to hold rice; meat and vegetable dishes, plus pickle, flatbreads, and other South Asian lunch staples sit above.
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By the digits
₹800 ($11): Monthly cost of delivery from dabbawalas
₹95–₹110 ($1.33–$1.54): Daily cost of purchasing a home-cooked lunch
₹12,000 ($170): Monthly pay for a dabbawala
5,000: Dabbawalas in Mumbai
6: Months it takes to train
10: Years it takes to become a manager
140 lb (64 kg): Typical weight a dabbawala carries
4-5: Dabbawalas a tiffin passes through on its journey
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First came the box. Madhulika Dash traces the likely origins of the tiffin to the need to protect food for travel, noting that food storage in the Indian home has long relied on stacked vessels. The bento box and the stacked Arabic safarta may also have inspired the tiffin, with their arrival in India via the Silk Road.
Then came the word. “Tiffin” stems from “tiffing,” a 17th-century British colloquialism for a “slight repast” outside of typical mealtimes. As the British colonists got used to the warm subcontinent, they began to see the wisdom in small midday meals rather than the heavier food of their homeland and became dabbawala customers.
Sources are sparse on the system’s origins, but they point to a young man from Pune—like many contemporary dabbawalas. It’s likely that tiffin delivery was not uncommon, but Havji Madhu Bacche is credited with transforming it from an informal system of unskilled workers looking for orders on the street corner into “an association governed by a set of internal rules and with a solid reputation for reliability”—in essence, a union, established in 1890.
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Explain it like I’m five
To start with, dabbawalas aren’t “delivery guys,” in an on-demand, point A-to-point B sense. It’s more like a postal service for lunch, one made possible by the city’s dense, efficient subway network.
Dabbawalas pick up around 30 dabbas each from customers’ houses around 8:30am and load them onto the train within an hour. A code written on each dabba functions like a postal code—if that postal code also had instructions for routing. It contains the part of the neighborhood the dabba comes from, the railway station it gets dropped off at, the destination railway station, the destination area, building, and floor, all in a handful of letters and numbers, guiding it on about a four-hour trip.
Dabbawalas are paid fairly well for local standards, and they typically stay in the business, and with their teams, for years. But customers have to be dedicated to the rules as well, or they could be dropped from the ranks.
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The dabbawalas’ system is not actually six-sigma certified, as is often believed. That originates from a 1998 Forbes piece, where the president of the dabbawalas’ association told a reporter that they make about one mistake every two months, or 16 million deliveries. Such an accuracy rate would meet, and in fact exceed, the Six Sigma goal.
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If you don’t live in Mumbai, the existence of the dabbawala system might seem mysterious. Why pay a delivery service to deliver your own home-cooked meal to you when you could just carry it on the train?
The short answer: You can’t. The system is made possible by the subway; paradoxically, the subway is why the system is necessary. Every day it carries eight million people, the population of Switzerland (or about a third of the city’s inhabitants), on cars packed to 2.6 times capacity on average, a commute Nupur Anand calls “soul-squeezing.” At rush hour, the cars can be several times over capacity. The overcrowding can be dangerous, so having someone deliver your own lunch to you is a necessary convenience for train commuters.
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How we 🥡 now
Tiffin deliveries are a completely analog system in a metropolis with an abundance of tech talent. So startups are trying to beat them at their own game, or at least squeeze into a comparable niche.
It’s not easy. As the Financial Times reports, there are only 100,000 restaurants in India (one reason why Mumbai workers have an affinity for home-cooked meals that keeps the dabbawala system alive), so competitors Swiggy and Uber Eats have invested in kitchens to produce homestyle meals.
Dabbawalas may have to evolve to survive. Competition has caused some tension within the organization, and they’ve added mopeds to their traditional tech of bikes and handcarts.
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In November 2012, the Harvard Business Review did a case study of the dabbawalas’ association, from their work culture to their management style to their straightforward, extremely robust methods.
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