Sunday, March 24, 2013

Quality in Unexpected Places

Let me share a great story of supply chain management with excellent quality from a service sector in India. 

The Mumbai India Tiffinwallas (Dabbawallas) are international figures now thanks to Forbes Global. The Forbes story details the efficiency which with they deliver the Tiffins (lunch boxes) of their customers. Around 5,000 Tiffinwallas deliver 175,000 lunches everyday and take the empty Tiffins back. They only make One Mistake in 2 months.

This means there is one Error on every 16 million transactions. This is a more than Six Sigma quality performance.

Following are the excerpts of the Forbes 1998 story:

These are the men who deliver 175,000 lunches (or "Tiffin") each day to offices and schools throughout Mumbai, the business capital of India. The meals are prepared in the homes of the people who commute into Mumbai each morning and delivered in their own Tiffin carriers. After lunch, the process is reversed. And what a process - in it's complexity, the 5,000 Tiffinwallas make a mistake only about once every two months, according to Ragunath Medge, president of the Mumbai Tiffinmen's Association. That's one error in every 8 million deliveries, or 16 million if you include the return trip. "If we made 10 mistakes a month, no one would use our service," says Medge.

How do they do it? The meals are picked up from commuters' homes in suburbs around central Mumbai long after the commuters have left for work, delivered to them on time, then picked up and delivered home before the commuters return.

Each Tiffin carrier has, painted on its top, a number of symbols which identify where the carrier was picked up, the originating and destination stations and the address to which it is to be delivered. After the Tiffin carriers are picked up, they are taken to the nearest railway station, where they are sorted according to the destination station. Between 10:15 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. they are loaded in crates onto the baggage cars of trains. At the destination station they are unloaded by other Tiffinwallas and re-sorted, this time according to street address and floor.

The 100-kilogram crates of carriers, carried on Tiffinwallas' heads, hand-wagons and cycles are delivered at 12:30 p.m., picked up at 1:30 p.m., and returned where they came from.

The charge for this extraordinary service is just 150 rupees ($3.33) per month, enough for the Tiffinwallas, who are mostly self-employed, to make a good living. After paying Rs. 60 per crate and Rs.120 per man per month to the Western Railway for transport, the average Tiffinwallas clears about Rs. 3,250 ($65 per month). Of that sum, Rs. 10 goes to the Tiffinmen's Association. After minimal expenses, the rest of the Rs. 50,000 a month that the Association collects goes to a charitable trust that feeds the poor. Superb service and charity too. Can anyone ask for more?

Let us recap the Supply Chain Drivers: 

1). Facility - They use railway platform as temporary facility for tiffin carriers crates assembly.
2). Inventory - There is No inventory to maintain, as the fresh home-cooked food is delivered daily.
3). Transportation - They use hand-wagons, bicycles, and railway system for delivery.
4). Information - They use simple chalk sticks for marking tiffin carriers, no fancy computers needed.
5). Sourcing - There is no need to source any raw materials, as the food is supplied by the customers.
6). Price - Customers pay only 150 rupees ($3.33) per month for tiffin delivery.

And what is more amazing is that this is run by people, most of whom are illiterate.

If we keep an excellence focused mindset and empower our employees, we can delight the customers with great quality. Then our operations will go on for a long time like Mumbai's Tiffinwallas, who are providing service since 1880. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on quality in unexpected places. 


  1. A new book, written by the Dabbawalla Association, just came out in Mumbai at The Bombay Store.

  2. Thanks Jay for sharing this information.