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Harvard Case Study On Mumbai Dabbawala Case

The dabbawalas (also spelled dabbawallas or dabbawallahs, called tiffin wallahs in older sources) constitute a lunchbox delivery and return system that delivers hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work in India, especially in Mumbai. The lunchboxes are picked up in the late morning, delivered predominantly using bicycles and railway trains, and returned empty in the afternoon. They are also used by meal suppliers in Mumbai, who pay them to ferry lunchboxes with ready-cooked meals from central kitchens to customers and back.[1] The 2013 Bollywood film The Lunchbox is based on the dabbawala service.


In 1890 Bombay, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service with about a hundred men.[2] In 1930, he informally attempted to unionize the dabbawallas. Later, a charitable trust was registered in 1956 under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust.[3] The commercial arm of this trust was registered in 1968 as Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier's Association.[citation needed] The current president of the association is Bhau Saheb Karbande and Subhash Talekar is the spokesperson.[4][3]


When literally translated, the word "dabbawala" means "one who carries a box". "Dabba" means a box (usually a cylindrical tin or aluminium container) from Persian: دَبّه‎, while "wala" is an agentive suffix, denoting a doer or holder of the preceding word.[5] The closest meaning of the dabbawala in English would be the "tiffin box delivery man".


Lunch boxes are marked in several ways:[6]

  1. Abbreviations for collection points
  2. Colour code for starting station
  3. Number for destination station
  4. Markings for handling dabbawala at destination, building and floor

A colour-coding system identifies the destination and recipient. Each dabbawala is required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the form of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and the white Gandhi cap (topi). Each month there is a division of the earnings of each unit. Fines are imposed for alcohol, tobacco, being out of uniform, and absenteeism.[7]

A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects dabbas either from a worker's home or from the dabba makers. As many of the carriers are of limited literacy (the average literacy of Dabbawallahs is that of 8th grade[8]), the dabbas (boxes) have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a colour or group of symbols.[9][10][11][12]

The dabbawala then takes them to a sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box (usually there is a designated car for the boxes). The markings include the railway station to unload the boxes and the destination building delivery address. Some modern infrastructure improvements such as the Navi Mumbai Metro are not used in the supply chain, as cabins do not have the capacity for hundreds of tiffins.[13]

At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes are collected after lunch or the next day and sent back to the respective houses. The dabbawalas also allow for delivery requests through SMS.[14]

Corporate Culture[edit]

Most tiffin-wallahs are related to each other, belong to the Varkari[16] sect of Maharashtra,[17] and come from the same small village near Pune. Tiffin distribution is suspended for five days each March as the tiffin-wallahs go home for the annual village festival.[18][19][20][21][22]

Economic analysis[edit]

Each dabbawala, regardless of role, is paid around 8,000 rupees per month (about US$131 in 2014). Between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved each day by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas. Tiffin-wallahs are self-employed. The union initiation fee is 30,000 rupees, which guarantees a 5,000-rupee monthly income and a job for life. The 150 rupee a month fee provides for delivery six days a week.(2002)[23][24][25]

It is frequently claimed[16] that dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every six million deliveries;[26] however, this is only an estimation from Ragunath Medge, the president of the Mumbai Tiffinmen's Association in 1998, and is not from a rigorous study. Medge told Subrata Chakravarty, the lead author of the "Fast Food" article by Forbes where this claim first appeared,[27] that dabbawalas make a mistake "almost never, maybe once every two months" and this statement was extrapolated by Subrata Chakravarty to be a rate of "one mistake in 8 million deliveries."[28] Chakravarty recalled the affair in an interview and said:

"Forbes never certified the dabbawalas as being a six-sigma organization. In fact, I never used the term at all. As you know, six-sigma is a process, not a statistic. But it is commonly associated with a statistic of 1.9 errors per billion operations, and that is what caused the confusion … . I was impressed by the efficiency and complexity of the process by which some 175,000 tiffin boxes were sorted, transported, delivered and returned each day by people who were mostly illiterate and unsophisticated. I asked the head of the organization how often they made a mistake. He said almost never, maybe once every two months. Any more than that would be unforgivable to customers. I did the math, which works out to one mistake in 8 million deliveries—or 16 million, since the tiffin carriers are returned home each day. That is the statistic I used. Apparently, at a conference in 2002, a reporter asked the president … whether the tiffinwallahs were a six-sigma organization. He said he didn't know what that was. When told about the 1.9 error-per-billion statistic, I'm told he said: "Then we are. Just ask Forbes". The reporter, obviously without having read my story, wrote that Forbes had certified the tiffinwallahs as a six-sigma organization. That phrase was picked up and repeated by other reporters in other stories and now seems to have become part of the folklore."

— Subrata Chakravarty, [28]

The New York Times reported in 2007 that the 125-year-old dabbawala industry continues to grow at a rate of 5–10% per year.[15]

In 2011, dabbawalas went on strike for the first time in 120 years to promote and attend a rally by Azad Maidan to support Anna Hazare in his campaign against corruption.[29]

Studies and accolades[edit]

Various studies have focused on dabbawalas:

  • In 2001, Pawan G. Agrawal carried out his PhD research in "A Study & Logistics & Supply Chain Management of Dabbawala in Mumbai". He presented his results on the efficiency of Dabbawallas in various fora.[30]
  • In 2005, the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) featured a case study on the Mumbai Dabbawallas from a management perspective of logistics.[31]
  • In 2010, Harvard Business School added the case study The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time to their compendium for its high level of service with a low-cost and simple operating system.[32]
  • In 2014, Uma S. Krishnan completed her PhD research in "A Cross-Cultural Study of the Literacy Practices of The Dabbawalas: Towards a New Understanding of Non-mainstream Literacy and its Impact on Successful Business Practices."[33]

On 21 March 2011, Prakash Baly Bachche carried three dabbawalla tiffin crates on his head at one time, which was entered as a Guinness world record.[34]


  1. ^"In Pictures: Tiffin time in Mumbai". BBC news. 16 February 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014. 
  2. ^"Bombay Dabbawalas go high-tech". Retrieved 2011-09-15. 
  3. ^ abRoncaglia, Sara (1 January 2013). "Feeding the city : work and food culture of the Mumbai dabbawalas". OpenBook Publishers. Retrieved 2 May 2017 – via Internet Archive. 
  4. ^Nair, Supriya. "The Tiffin History of Mumbai - Livemint". Retrieved 8 April 2017. 
  5. ^Pathak R.C. (1946, Reprint 2000). The Standard Dictionary of the Hindi Language, Varanasi: Bhargava Book Depot, pp.300,680
  6. ^Thakker, Pradip. "Mumbai's amazing dabbawalas". Retrieved 8 April 2017. 
  7. ^TEDx Talks (24 February 2011). "TEDxSSN - Dr. Pawan Agrawal - Mumbai Dabbawalas". Retrieved 3 May 2017 – via YouTube. 
  8. ^Agrawal, Dr. Pawan. "Dabbawallahs - A talk by Dr. Pawan Agrawal". Ted X SSN Talks. You Tube. Retrieved 2 May 2014. 
  9. ^magazine, Works That Work. "Dabbawallas: Delivering Excellence by Meena Kadri (Works That Work magazine)". Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  10. ^PTI (13 July 2014). "NDMC launches new project to make unemployed women self-reliant". Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  11. ^Bureau, Our (20 July 2012). "Taking the story of Mumbai's dabbawalas to IIM Calcutta". Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  12. ^PTI (2 June 2013). "Mumbai dabbawalas to share success mantra in Dubai". Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  13. ^Ramper, Johnny. "Dabbawalas: Preserving Tradition in Modern India". Z.E.N. Foods. Retrieved 8 April 2017. 
  14. ^"BBC NEWS - Business - India's tiffinwalas fuel economy". Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  15. ^ abIn India, Grandma Cooks, They Deliver from The New York Times
  16. ^ abIndian Summer Festival Canada (23 July 2014). "Lunchbox Legends: The Dabbawalas of Mumbai". Retrieved 3 May 2017 – via YouTube.  at Indian Summer Festival Vancouver
  17. ^Parmar, Beena (2 July 2014). "Mumbai's dabbawalas up delivery charges by ₹100". Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  18. ^Bureau, Our (26 November 2013). "More lunch box ladies to deliver food cooked with love". Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  19. ^Bureau, Our (2 April 2014). "Dabbawalas to deliver WHO's word". Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  20. ^"nomadlife - an international nomads community". Archived from the original on 16 December 2005. Retrieved 3 May 2017. 
  21. ^"DINODIA Photo Library - The largest collection of Indian photographs online". Archived from the original on 9 August 2003. Retrieved 3 May 2017. 
  22. ^"BBC NEWS - South Asia - Tiffin time for Charles and Camilla". Retrieved 3 May 2017. 
  23. ^Harding, Luke (24 June 2002). "A Bombay lunchbox". Retrieved 2 May 2017 – via The Guardian. 
  24. ^PTI (2 July 2014). "'Dabbawalas' hike delivery charges to meet rising inflation". Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  25. ^"Upper Crust ::: India's food, wine and style magazine". Archived from the original on 22 October 2002. Retrieved 3 May 2017. 
  26. ^The Guardian. A Bombay lunchbox (June 24, 2002).
  27. ^Chakravarty, Subrata N. "Fast food." Forbes. 10 Aug. 1998. Forbes Magazine. 21 Sept. 2013
  28. ^ abPathak, Gauri Sanjeev. "Delivering the Nation: The Dabbawalas of Mumbai." South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 33.2 (2010): 235-257.
  29. ^Sheth, Priya; Ganguly, Nivedita (18 August 2011). "Dabbawalas to strike for the first time in 120 years". The Hindu Business Line. Retrieved 8 April 2017. 
  30. ^"Dr. Pawan Agrawal". Kaizer. Archived from the original on 9 April 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014. 
  31. ^Ravichandran, N. (1 September 2005). World class logistics operations : The case of Bombay dabbawallahs(PDF). Ahmedabad: Indian Institute of Management. 
  32. ^Thomke, Stefan H.; Sinha, Mona (February 2010). The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time (Case 610-059). Harvard, Ma.: Harvard Business School. 
  33. ^S, Krishnan, Uma (1 January 2014). "A Cross Cultural Study of the Literacy Practices of the Dabbawalas: Towards a New Understanding of Nonmainstream Literacy and its Impact on Successful Business Practices". Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  34. ^"Most dabbawala tiffin crates carried on the head". Guinness world records. Retrieved 2 May 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Dabbawalas.
  • Shekhar Gupta, Our computer is our head and our Gandhi cap is the cover to protect it from the sun or rain, Indian Express, Walk the Talk, NDTV 24x7.
  • Hart, Jeremy (2006-03-19). "The Mumbai working lunch". The Independent Online. The Independent group, London. Archived from the original on 2007-03-25. Retrieved 2007-03-20. 
  • "Indian lunchbox carriers to attend the Royal nuptials". Evening Standard (London). Associated Newspapers Ltd. 2005-04-05. Retrieved 2007-03-20. [permanent dead link]
  • Mumbai's Dabbawala: The Uncommon Story of the Common Man, Shobha Bondre. tr. Shalaka Walimbe. OMO Books, 2011. ISBN 81-910356-1-8.
  • The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time, by Stefan H. Thomke and Mona Sinha, Harvard Business School Case Study, February 2010 (Revised January 2013)
Dabbawala loading lunch boxes on a train
A dabba, or Indian-style tiffin box
Two typical dabbawala lunches
It was estimated in 2007 that the dabbawala industry was growing by 5–10% per annum.[15]

How Harvard professors are mining India for management lessons

How Harvard professors are mining India for lessons in management

By Nikhil Menon, ET Bureau

From the logistics of Dabbawalas to the redevelopment of Dharavi, Harvard professors are mining the country for lessons in management.

The sight turned quite a few heads on Mumbai's suburban railway network. Long used to ignoring everything in their antlike frenzy, commuters who saw a dapper-looking foreigner gingerly alighting from a local train in the company of a bunch of dabbawalas couldn’t help but pause for a while. But if they were puzzled, Stefan H Thomke, William Barclay Harding Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), was astonished-and getting more so by the second.

A regular visitor to India for a quarter of a century, Thomke had first read about the dabbawalas in a magazine in his hotel room. He says, "I immediately asked myself: how could an organisation with so few resources, technology and management knowhow achieve such high-delivery performance? When I came back to Boston, I researched the organisation and found more questions than answers."

In Pic: Professor John Macomber, co-author of the case study on Dharavi, on a Mumbai street.


'The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time'

In February 2010, HBS published his observations in the form of a case study, entitled 'The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time'. One of the most authoritative analyses of the dabbawala community and the environment they operate in, the case study has since been debated and discussed extensively in classrooms as well as in Harvard's management development programmes .

"It seemed like a fascinating and unusual setting that is unique to India but with potentially powerful lessons for the world," says Thomke. "People with average skills and education can do extraordinary things. Perhaps there is a bigger lesson here. India has many people, but are all of them being used to their full potential?"

Thomke isn't the first Harvard professor to evince an interest in the great Indian growth story. From Jamnalal Bajaj and Mahatma Gandhi to Infosys and the Indian railways to SBI, India teems with countless examples of resourcefulness and stories of ingenuity in the face of serious challenges. For an academic, particularly , from one of the world's bestknown business schools, India provides a virtual goldmine of case studies.

In Pic: A worker polishes a kitchen cooking stove at a small-scale stove making factory at Dharavi, one of the world's largest shantytowns, in Mumbai, India on Friday, June 10, 2011. (Image: AP)


Setting of India Research Center was a significant step by Harvard

Harvard's India connection has been growing steadily over the years. In recent times, the School has begun running full-fledged management development programmes (MDPs) in India for future leaders. Professors from top Indian B-schools are also becoming regulars at Harvard's Global Colloquium on Participant-Centered Learning, held in Boston. But arguably one of the most significant steps taken to boost this mutual relationship was the establishment of an India Research Center (IRC) in 2006.

The Center, one of seven worldwide , is designed to run like an Embassy , through which Harvard will 'share the best of Harvard with India and vice versa'. One of the Center's main objectives is to support and guide members of Harvard's faculty who routinely visit India on research projects that culminate in case studies. These case studies, says HBS Dean Nitin Nohria, enable the school to share Indian knowledge with the rest of the world.

"We know that we could never possibly scale to meet the growing demand for what we do and we don't aspire to take the place of business schools in India or elsewhere ," he says.

In Pic: A boy carries his two-year-old brother through a flooded pathway in a Mumbai slum on June 6, 2011. (Image: REUTERS)


Most Harvard case studies from South Asia are India-centric

"So we have chosen instead to go where the knowledge is, to study it first-hand and then share it with the world through our publishing and teaching. Our research centers in various parts of the world, including India , help us to build relationships with business leaders in those regions to facilitate the writing of cases and other research."

According to Anjali Raina, executive director of the IRC, as many as 80 of the 120-plus recently documented Harvard case studies from South Asia, are India-centric . "There is a tremendous amount of knowledge lying across the three spheres of business, society and government. HBS researchers are actively studying all three individually, as well as cases that lie within the interaction of multiple spheres," she says.

One such example is Dharavi, Asia's largest slum and home to an indigenous economy all its own. The redevelopment of Dharavi is fraught with politicial, social and financial repercussions. Yet, it is a necessity for a growing economy like India to provide a better quality of life to Dharavi's residents.

In Pic:High rise residential buildings are seen behind a slum in Mumbai on July 20, 2010. (Image: REUTERS)


Dharavi is a very complex place

Lakshmi Iyer, Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard's Business, Government and the International Economy Unit, co-authored a study along with Professor John Macomber and Namrata Arora, entitled 'Dharavi : Developing Asia's Largest Slum'.

Written in the year that ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ swept the Oscars, the case uses imagery and even the occasional quote from the movie. It tracks a real estate developer's journey, negotiating the various risks and questions that inevitably arise during redevelopment. Add to that the fact that Dharavi is a very complex place with different communities that have strong personal views on redevelopment and it becomes a perfect candidate for a case study for the world's brightest minds.

Macomber has used the case in three different courses - finance, infrastructure , sustainable cities - and it's been a hit every time, provoking extensive discussion . "The case is about entrepreneurship and large-scale investment. It deals with finance, risk management, sensitivity analysis, supply chains, organisational behaviour and all the other things you learn in business school," he says.

In Pic:In this photo taken December 18, 2009, a boy stands amid plastic waste from a plastic bottle recycling plant at a slum area in Mumbai, India. (Image: AP)


Growth of middle class draws an academician's interest

Lakshmi Iyer says there are two principal reasons for India being of major interest from an academician's standpoint: one, the high economic growth rates recorded over the past two decades and the growth of a significant middle class and two, the opening up of the economy, which means that more and more global firms have a presence in India now.

"For both these reasons, it is important for our students and MDP participants to understand how business works in India," she adds. If Dharavi and Slumdog Millionaire generated widespread interest in India's growth, the terror attacks of November 2008 were a grim reminder of its vulnerability. The Taj Mahal hotel at Apollo Bunder in Mumbai has long been one of the city's most iconic symbols for Indians and foreigners alike.

But on 26th November 2008, it was thrust into the middle of India's worst terrorist attack, as armed terrorists forced their way inside, gunning down scores of innocents and engaging security forces for over two days.

In Pic:In this October 19, 2010 photo, a boy flies a kite in a shanty town in Mumbai, India.(Image: AP)


Employees at the Taj instinctively did a right thing during Mumbai attacks

The events that followed are known to most people. What could have been a human and public relations catastrophe became a story of resilience and courage that will be retold many times over. It also became a Harvard case study.

Rohit Deshpande, Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing and Faculty Chair, Global Colloquium for Participant-Centered Learning, calls the Taj incident 'the most important example of customercentric leadership from below I have ever seen' . He says employees at the Taj individually, and without prior training in anti-terrorism measures, instinctively 'did the right thing.' "The telephone operators stayed on the job despite the end of their shifts and being told to go home.

Instead, they instructed guests to turn off room lights, take key cards out of room doors, lock rooms, turn off lights, and not use their mobiles. The kitchen staff formed a human chain to protect guests from bullets and led them down secret kitchen passages and out to safety," says Deshpande.


The case explored factors for a customer-centric organisation

Apart from telling the story of employee bravery and initiative, the case also explored the factors that go into building a customer-centric organisation, starting with recruiting, training, and rewarding employees and the role of corporate culture (in this case not only of Taj Hotels but of the Tata Group) and what it takes to rebuild a distinguished, centuryold flagship brand.

And rebuild, the group did. Today , heads of state and business leaders heading to Mumbai want to stay at the Taj, a symbol of resistance against terror. Interestingly, the Taj terror case study was not planned, and Deshpande was originally planning to do a study on the hotel's changing brand architecture , which was also released in September 2010.

Raina of IRC says that over the years, the subjects being chosen for research by HBS researchers have seen a gradual shift from FMCG and marketing to other subjects. "These include sustainability , finance, urbanisation , sustainability , good governance and HR," she explains.


Accessibility of oranised data is research-related challenge

The richness of data available in the country has tremendously fascinated academicians and Indophiles alike. However, Raina admits that this data is not always readily accessible. "The data's there, but it needs to be leveraged better," she says, "Sometimes you don't know who the right contact person is, and how to contact him or her. Then the data may not be available in the right format, or may not be readily accessible or organised. This is one of the research-related challenges."

But Thomke was never fazed by these challenges, since all along he had been looking for interesting case studies that were unique to India and, at the same time, had 'broad global appeal' .

These included the first case, about the dabbawalas of Mumbai, and a second one titled 'Innovation at Mahindra & Mahindra' , which is about the role of maverick innovators in organisations and the tension between structured and informal management processes.


India's big challenge is to supplement world-class education

The case speaks about Mahindra & Mahindra's efforts to build a revolutionary new tractor, which encounters numerous problems and setbacks. Thomke recalls encountering employees who were 'hungry for knowledge' and had some pretty impressive suggestions.

But despite this, he adds that India's next big challenge is to supplement the world-class education being offered at its premier institutions with a focus on training the 'other 99% of the population' , particularly in vocational skills so as to maximise India's human capital advantage.

His observations are being echoed in India's corridors of power. However, one thing seems certain: whatever India does, it will be in its own unique way. And the world will be watching and taking notes.