Divine Dabbawallas

April 18th, 2007   •   11 comments   

A dabbawalla doing a balancing act. Steady bro!

Hat tip to Seth Godin for this fascinating food phenomenon in India called the Dabbawalla. These guys deliver food in tiffins (metal containers like the one below which we also use in Singapore) to thousands of offices every day.


According to BBC News, there are about 5,000 of them delivering 200,000 tiffins a day, often balancing them precariously on their heads while using public transport like trains. Quoting from Seth,

“These men deliver thousands of lunches every single day in Mumbai… from the person’s home to their office, hot and fresh. The reported error rate is one in six million.

How is this possible? How do you create and run a service with thousand of employees, no technology and a poorly-educated workforce and have better than six sigma quality?

Simple: the dabbawallas know their customers.

If they rotated the people around, it would never work. There’s trust, and along with the trust is responsibility. By creating a flat organization and building relationships, the system even survives monsoon season.”

This example certainly makes one wonder if man’s relentless push towards technology can truly make a big difference in productivity. Often, its the simple things in life which work best.

These guys put our IT inventions to shame!

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  1. posted on Apr 19, 2007 at 3:22 PM

    Those guys who deliver the food in tiffins are incredibly good, I sense.

  2. posted on Apr 19, 2007 at 7:17 PM

    So it’s called tiffin *i’ve been ignorant*

    always called it na chan …think it’s hokkien or some kind of dialect ;p

  3. posted on Apr 19, 2007 at 8:04 PM

    Wow.. superman in disguise??
    simplicity is most difficult to achieve, bro.

  4. posted on Apr 20, 2007 at 12:18 AM

    Hi gals, yes they certainly have accomplished quite a feat without any use of hardware or software. I guess ultimately the most important machine ever created is the one inside our heads!

    In Singapore, tiffins don’t seem to be that popular though, as food outlets are abundant and generally serve fairly high quality meals. As the stay-at-home workers increase in future, there may be a market for this though. Something for Tigerfish to chew over? 😉

  5. posted on Apr 20, 2007 at 8:25 AM

    i read that we used to use tiffins to packet our food from hawker centre in the past? err i not sure ler 😛

    i doubt any singaporean would want to be seen carry the tiffins on their head when making deliveries. talk about cultural differences! LOLz

  6. posted on Apr 20, 2007 at 10:01 AM

    slurp! I remembered that I used to receive my lunch at home (back when I was in school) from food conveyed in tiffins like this. That was at least 20 over years ago. The food wasn’t too bad but you can’t expect savoury delights hailing from the best chefs in Singapore!

  7. posted on Apr 20, 2007 at 7:19 PM

    Hahah…I cannot imagine carrying the tiffins on my head ;p I need to wrap up my head with a white towel first…buahahaha.

    Would you order from me? ;p

    One problem about tiffin is Sg – it’s hard to do home business since most pple that eat out are working. So when you do the delivery at std hours, no one is at home receiving the tiffin (so where to leave the tiffin of food?) And the food might even be cold when you reach home. IN the end, still have to heat up. So food outlets offer the convenience and flexibility. You can buy and eat when you are ready.
    That’s why so far tiffin can only target offices.

    Unless for homes, tiffin business becomes pizza delivery. Call then deliver. But then it makes cooking at the front end so inefficient.

    *still chewing*

  8. posted on Apr 21, 2007 at 3:34 PM

    Good points there Tigerfish. I wonder if Indian cuisine is more amenable to carting over long distances compared to say Chinese vegetable rice or Western steaks? Its true that most Singaporeans are not home – we are too busy trying to earn a living. Also, the convenience of food centres here.

    If you do go into this business, I am sure you will do well!

  9. posted on Apr 22, 2007 at 8:52 AM

    These guys got my respect man..fwah..not easy carrying such stuffs…

    Quite coincidental tho..I just learnt of the word tiffin yesterday and then read more about it today at your blog..coolio..:P

  10. posted on Apr 22, 2007 at 2:56 PM


    Actually from an environmental perspective (my next pet concern… he he) using tiffins are better than the styrofoam containers, plastic spoons and forks which get disposed of. Speaking of which oftentimes the simplest solution can be the most elegant way to solve a problem.

  11. posted on May 22, 2007 at 1:10 PM

    I would give to get hot food delivered in a tiffin. I have a two-tier tiffin that I carry my lunch in here in Toronto, Canada. Given that Toronto is perhaps one of the most multicultural cities in the world, I find that it is great conversation starter – the tiffin brings back memories of “home” from Guyana to Poland.

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