Why does Mumbai Dabbawala still exist

MUMBAI: Hero of Labor

Raghunath Medge represents the most reliable logistics company in the world. It has no secret, but an inimitable business model.

Daniel feed

Raghunath Medge often travels abroad to talk about the Dabbawala system in Mumbai. Last week he was a guest at the forum of the Swiss Management Company in Zurich. Switzerland is the 18th country that he can now get to know, says his translator. The visitor from India is 62 years old. For Raghunath Medge, the doors to the wide world only opened around 15 years ago.

On a trip to India, Prince Charles was shown the work of those couriers who haul over 200,000 lunches every day with bicycles, wheelbarrows or with pure muscle power through the clogged streets and overcrowded train stations of the 17 million metropolis. The organization of the Dabbawalas has been world-famous since that visit by the heir to the British throne. Especially in western management circles, where one wonders how it is possible that this system runs as precisely and reliably as a Swiss watch.

The Dabbawalas deliver the menus at a cost of around $ 12 per month with a reliability level of 99.9998 percent. Unless they are slowed down by insurmountable floods in the monsoon season, deliveries are made over many kilometers with an almost unbelievable punctuality.

The logistics phenomenon has long attracted the attention of the western business world. The bustling British entrepreneur Richard Branson had the work of the Indian couriers printed on posters with their pure white clothes. They should serve as a motivation for his employees at the Virgin Group to achieve at least two thirds of the quality level of the Dabbawalas. Global logistics companies invest tens of millions of francs in reliability and punctuality. But they hardly reach the standard of Indian urban couriers.

Over 5000 delivery workers

The delivery service forms the livelihood of a homogeneous group of over 5000 messengers. Almost without exception, they come from a few villages around the city of Pune, which is 150 kilometers southeast of Mumbai.

The tradition of the Dabbawalas goes back to the 19th century. “The work is passed on within the families,” explains Raghunath Medge. He himself moved to Mumbai in 1975 to continue the family tradition in the third generation. Unlike most of his colleagues, Raghunath Medge has a college degree. That is probably one of the reasons why he became Executive President 20 years later. Eight out of ten of his employees have no school education and can neither read nor write. But Raghunath Medge is nothing more than a primus inter pares in his position. The Dabbawala Association has been functioning as a cooperative since 1985, in which the employees are equal partners. "Dabbawalas learn through work," says Mr. Medge, including himself.

When he took up the service over 40 years ago, he soon realized that the existing codification system no longer did justice to the rapidly growing delivery area. The system must display the pick-up and delivery addresses on the small, round sheet metal lid of the lunch box in a form that is easily readable for the illiterate. Medge found the solution in a matrix-like combination of colors, numbers and letters. The couriers can see at a glance where the cargo has to be picked up and the empty container returned in the evening - at which of Mumbai's 17 train stations the consignments have to be repacked for further distribution and in which building and on which floor they are finally to be returned. The code is an intellectual masterpiece, all the more as it still does its job perfectly in the rapidly growing metropolis.

A job for illiterate people

The fact that the organization aligns its processes to the needs of its employees and not the other way around trying to change the employees is obviously an essential part of the success model. Medge says the courier service is an illiterate job. He thinks that only they could carry out this activity in the existing quality. The lack of alternatives may be one of the reasons. What counts even more is the homogeneity of the group, in which almost everyone belongs to the same sect and shares the same cultural and social values.

Cultural and religious reasons also determine a significant part of the demand. The caste system is characteristic of Indian cuisine, and nowhere is it more diverse than in Mumbai. Food cooked from your own household not only complies with religious regulations, it is also more hygienic and cheaper than a meal in a restaurant or in the canteen.

When asked whether it would not be economically more efficient if housewives went to paid work themselves, Medge said: "Women are usually even less educated than men, and many would probably not find any paid work that could help the family." Medge explains to the Swiss managers: "The context in which the Dabbawala system in Mumbai has been able to assert itself for so long cannot be transferred to other countries." Even in India attempts to transfer the system to other cities have failed. “Think globally, act locally”, the magic word of management from the beginnings of globalization, never caught on with the Dabbawalas. Instead: "Think locally, act locally". This could also be an incentive for local managers to take a close look at local conditions when designing business models before talking to the company representative.