Colin here. Supply chains increasingly define our world. When there’s a disruption, the knock-on effect is seismic. This supply chain isn’t just at the macro, sea container level, but also how goods and services move around a city—think UberEats, UPS, bike couriers, and other connective tissue that makes a city happen.
While thinking about how these delivery platforms became, for better or worse, near essential services for many in the pandemic, I was reminded of the highly efficient, yet decentralized and hyper human-powered service in Mumbai: the dabbawalas. These couriers deliver meals prepared in customers’ homes to their offices and then return the empty dabbas (metal lunchboxes) the same day. Rinse, repeat.
According to Harvard Business Review:
The 5,000 or so dabbawalas in the city have an astounding service record. Every working day they transport more than 130,000 lunchboxes throughout Mumbai, the world’s fourth-most-populous city. That entails conducting upwards of 260,000 transactions in six hours each day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year (minus holidays), but mistakes are extremely rare. Amazingly, the dabbawalas—semiliterate workers who largely manage themselves—have achieved that level of performance at very low cost, in an ecofriendly way, without the use of any IT system or even cell phones.
The dabbawala service is legendary for its reliability. Since it was founded, in 1890, it has endured famines, wars, monsoons, Hindu-Muslim riots, and a series of terrorist attacks. It has attracted worldwide attention and visits by Prince Charles, Richard Branson, and employees of Federal Express, a company renowned for its own mastery of logistics.
The challenges of Mumbai are well-known: hyper-growth and density create traffic that can snarl for miles as horns from vehicles of all shapes and sizes honk incessantly. But this workforce is known for its reliability and has served as a case study for some of the world’s best thinkers on logistics and delivery.
Why is this interesting?
This is arguably one of the world’s most interesting examples of a highly decentralized workforce, with decision-making pushed down to the tactical level. Success is scored on a single metric: did the customer have their lunch delivered on time?
The daily journey of a dabba is epic. It touches lots of different people throughout the day. The first touch is the home pickup. Then the dabba is transported to the nearest train station and sorted based on final destination. Upon arrival, it is then handed to its final delivery person who aims to deliver exactly around lunchtime. The process is then reversed, day in and day out.
Harvard goes deeper:
To perform their work most efficiently, the dabbawalas have organized themselves into roughly 200 units of about 25 people each. These small groups have local autonomy. Such a flat organizational structure is perfectly suited to providing a low-cost delivery service. (Dabbawala customers pay only about 400 or 500 rupees, or $7 to $9, a month.) There are other delivery services that charge more and cater to local groups, but as far as I know, the dabbawalas have no significant rivals at their price point and scale. Even though the service has been in business for more than a hundred years, no one has been able to replicate it.
The railway system sets the pace and rhythm of work. The daily schedule determines when certain tasks need to be done and the amount of time allowed for each. For instance, workers have 40 seconds to load the crates of dabbas onto a train at major stations and just 20 seconds at interim stops. Workers have 40 seconds to load the crates of dabbas onto a train at major stations and just 20 seconds at interim stops.
The tight schedule helps synchronize everyone and imposes discipline in an environment that might otherwise be chaotic. In addition, it provides clear feedback when performance slips. If a worker is late dropping off his dabbas at a station, his delinquency is immediately obvious to everyone, and alternative arrangements then have to be made for transporting his dabbas on another train. Problems can’t be swept under the rug and must be dealt with promptly.
Sadly, COVID has dwindled this incredible network down to ten percent of its former size. With reduced train schedules, the backbone is gone, forcing deliveries to be made on motorcycles or other means. Some tech platforms are trying to leverage the worker’s expertise, but it is in the early innings. But the true beauty of the original system was the lo-fi simplicity, reliability, and humility of service that kept Mumbaikars fed on the job. (CJN)
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
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We could all learn something about organization and efficiency from these workers. The precision of delivery to the trains is amazing. The fact that they can do all these transaction without being literate just goes to show that mankind found other ways to communicate before they learned to read and write. Amazing! And empowering!