On Monday near Church Street, Mumbai I met one of my supply chain heroes. He is a member of a team that has been invited to Prince Charles wedding; lauded by Bill Clinton; followed by Sir Richard Branson and accorded the Six Sigma Award for their superlative delivery performance. One of the protagonists in Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic verses, Gibreel Farishta, was born to a Dabbawallah and, TL would add another tribute describing them as a master class in a simply modal approach. So, there I was talking to Shaurya who had just finished delivering tiffin boxes to teachers in an International School. He was keen to try his English – he is doing a course at the moment “because many address can’t read without it.” We turned the corner and there they were maybe fifty Dabawallas interchanging tiffin boxes with their symbols and colour codes designed to be read by men who had little schooling.

Five fingers of one hand pack the supply chain punch

A Dabawalla is a person who delivers fresh home-made food in tiffin boxes to office workers all over Mumbai at lunchtime. “Daba” means box – usually a cylindrical aluminium container containing a typical meal of curry, vegetables, and a type of bread called roti – and walla is a generic term for someone who works in that trade. There are daba makers in the home and then, usually on a bike, the daba collectors.

After collection, the 5,000 Dabawallas will take them to a designated sorting place before being moved about the city using the rail network and then, delivered to the desk by individual dabawallas. More than 175,000 – 200,000 tiffin boxes are delivered and, two hours later, collected. This is where the six sigma accolade comes in – a recent survey logged one mistake in 6,000 deliveries. 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.

The story starts in 1890, when Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, started a lunch delivery service with about 100 men. Later a charitable trust was registered in 1956 under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. The commercial arm of this trust was registered in 1968 as Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association. From the start, the dabbawalla system used the railways and, a visit to any day will see a master class in a transhipment hub as tiffin boxes move in and out more smoothly than any container port from Colombo to Jebel Ali. And as the Commonwealth Games close, it resembles a baton relay race at its best. The dabawallas use 68 railway stations as hubs with trains arriving at two minute intervals.

It is estimated that the dabbawala industry grows by 5-10% each year. Each dabbawala, regardless of role, gets paid about two to four thousand rupees per month (around £25–50 or US$40–80. Out of 5000 Dabbawalas , about 85% are illiterate and the remaining 15% are educated up to 8th grade. This is a low-tech service with the bare-footed dabbawallahs at the centre of the action working in teams led by a mukadam. As any of them will tell you: Hatachi pachuch bote hajaro kame kartat; karan tyanchyat aeekya aste – the five fingers of a palm can do a thousand things because they have unity.

Even the Dabawallas move on. Recent tie ups with mobile phone operator Airtel and, Corporation Bank aim to leverage the reach of the Dabawallas to sign up more customers to their own services and, as Mumbai expands there are significant opportunities in Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai). Now, the service allows booking for delivery through SMS. A web site, mydabbawala.com, has also been added to allow for on-line booking, in order to keep up with the times. An on-line poll on the web site ensures that customer feedback is given pride of place. Many of them, like the one I met on Churchgate, had been struggling with English addresses so, English courses have started alongside computer training for the team leaders so that they can improve the business.

In these days of highly sophisticated supply chain solutions it is a salutary lesson to observe the dabbawallas at work. Just like the couriers that ferry diamonds from Gujurat to Mumbai or the Festival crowds at temples that the Future Group study to understand queue dynamics simply modal has its place. No supply chain solution should ignore local context and, what that tells us is that there is no one best way to deliver a service and logistics does not have to be solely about high-tech solutions. After all, fundamentally, it is a people business from end-to-end.