Wednesday, 29 August 2007

India Week – The Dabawalas of Mumbai

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Thanks to numerous TV and film documentaries people all over the world have heard of the Dabawalas of Mumbai, and I am sure that most like me were amazed at the staying power and creativity of the business. They are also an inspiration for anyone looking at doing BPM without technology. For anyone that is not aware of them the following is a (very) quick explanation of them and what they do.

The Dabawalas collect and deliver home cooked food from your home and deliver it to your office in time for lunch, then after lunch they collect the empty lunch box or "Tiffin" as they are called and return it to your home. So they are merely a delivery service, operating a simple business – or so you thought! – Consider the numbers, the Dabalwalas collect deliver 200,000 such lunches every day to people within a 60km radius within a 3 hour time period, because they collect and return the empty boxes too, this amounts to around 400,000 transactions per day. For their delivery method they use people powered hand carts and the public railway system. All of this being carried out by around 5,000 semi literate, but totally dedicated staff. By any stretch of the imagination this simple business is actually extremely complicated indeed.

In such a business quality counts for almost everything, what many people may not have realised is that in fact if the Dabawalas of Mumbai only operated at Six Sigma then they would multiply the number of errors or mistakes they made by 54! You see they operate at an error rate of only 1 in 16 million (or 6.79 Sigma for those that are numerically inclined). So what kind of systems, quality checks, automation and IT must they be using to do so well – of course the answer is none! They are the very epitome of the principle that quality should just be the way of things and of empowering people to manage themselves.

Unlike Richard Branson of Virgin, I have not yet had the pleasure of spending a day with the Dabawalas and experiencing first hand just how they not only do it, but do it with a smile and a happy heart. To hear firsthand how a business created over 100 years ago in a very different world has stood the test of time and has in fact grown over the years, to hear firsthand how their customers have been customers through generations and how they have generated so much goodwill that most new business comes from recommendations alone. This surely has to be very close to the perfect model of business, with perhaps for many business people, one small twist – the issue of profit.

Certainly the Dabawalas make a profit, they need to to support the charitable work that they do in the villages from where there people come from. What makes them different is the way that they think about and calculate profit, in simple terms their formula is cost plus a little bit. They understand only too well that if they just keep pushing up the prices to a level beyond what the majority of customers could afford they would quickly lose business. They also find that by operating this way when they do need to increase prices that the customer understands and accepts it – how many of your clients are so understanding when you increase their prices?

In the space available here it is not possible to list all of the lessons that can be extrapolated from the way they do business, but one that sticks in the mind and is a salutary lesson to us all would be the following. There are always simple solutions to complex problems, but man has this innate ability to create complex solutions to even the simplest of problems. More often than not it is not the simplicity or complexity of the problem, but man himself that creates the complexity, aided and abetted by an education system which seems dedicated to teaching people to look for and create complexity at almost every turn.

The story of the Dabawalas is one of the best examples I have come across of the power and effectiveness of BPM as a thinking process and a philospophy.

Of course as with any business the future has to be uncertain for the Dabawalas, but I for one would hope that they can continue to survive and prosper, if ever there was a business that deserves to then this is it. It would be nice to think that of the many businesses all around the world who have benefited from learning lessons from the Dabawalas, some at least will have made sizable donations, at least as big as they would have made the management consulting forms that they might have hired to hear the same story  So, if anyone should be reading this to a Dabawala, then please praise and thank them on my behalf and to tell them that I look forward to one day being able to spend some time with them personally.

Thoughts for the day

  1. What simple processes has your organisation made unnecessarily complicated and how can you remove that complexity now?
  2. Do you give all that you could to those that could benefit? Don't wait for others, do your bit now and feel better. Sometimes you will find that time and knowledge is more appreciated than money.
  3. What are you doing to make quality and service a way of life, instead of hiding behind a standard or so called badge of honour?

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