Yes, efficiency. India is often associated with inefficiency. From the traffic that delays you for hours to the mind-boggling bureaucracy that makes you laugh and cry (sometimes simultaneously), India’s inefficiencies are many. And, yet, Indians have an incredible capacity to be efficient when they want or need to be.
In Mumbai, such efficiency is epitomized in one word: dabbawala. A dabba is a lunchbox. Wala (or walla or wallah) means “person.” We have chaiwallahs who sell tea, paperwalas who deliver newspapers, and many other kinds of walas. A dabbawala is a person who delivers a lunchbox (sometimes called a tiffin).
Mumbai’s dabbawalas deliver between 1,50,000 and 2,00,000 dabbas every day. They’re on time, every time. More efficient than the US post office, the dabbawalas have delivered tiffins during harsh monsoon rains and terror attacks. The Dabbawala union is a six-sigma certified organization of about 5,000 workers, most of whom are illiterate. They have an on-time delivery rate of better than 99%. Harvard Business School has studied their organizational culture, and Prince Charles has visited them.
Today, I saw how they sort their tiffins and ready them for delivery outside Churchgate station.
A key factor in the dabbawala success story is that each dabbawala is responsible for about 30 tiffins a day. Each dabbawala does his part to ensure on-time delivery.
After watching the dabbawalas, we ate at Leopold Cafe, where I asked the question:
If the dabbawalas can be so efficient, why can’t the rest of India be efficient, too?
I’d love to hear your answers to this question, so post a comment, please.
To learn more about dabbawalas, you can visit the Dabbawala Foundation website: