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The Mumbai Dabbawala Network

Whenever I go into my thinking mode to analyze applications of networks, my natural instinct leads me to examples that have heavy reliance on technology or internet such as: study of online sites, or online auction mechanisms, Ecommerce or social networking. But, amazingly network behavior is prominent in our day to day lives. There are several examples in real life that we may miss to classify as a network model. Here, I will discuss one real life example of astonishing use of networking in a business that has been successfully functional for a little over 125 years in the city of Mumbai, India. This is a study of the “Mumbai Dabbawala’s and their business model. I will start with explaining the concept of their business and who a Dabbawala is. A Dabbawala is a person who carries a tiffin box containing homemade food from their customer’s home and delivers it to the customer’s workplace and then later in the evening delivers the empty lunchboxes back to their respective households. Though this may appear to be a simple business idea, it is revolutionary for various reasons. For one, the Dabbawala’s do not work for salaries; they are all shareholders in the business that keeps expanding when more Dabbawala’s are added to their business structure. Currently there are a total of 5000 Dabbawala’s, who deliver approx. 200,000 lunches every day. It is worth mentioning that these Dabbawala’s are mostly illiterate and make use of zero technology in their work even today. Yet, they have a delivery mechanism with a defect rate of only 1 in sixteen million deliveries which means they have achieved a 99.99 % success rate. According to an article in Forbes Magazine, they have been awarded with a six sigma rating. But, for the Dabbawala’s even a single mistake is unpardonable. It is believed that such discipline and sincerity for their work is the secret of their unbelievable success. An instance of their dedication is that when Prince Charles expressed an interest in meeting with them, the Dabbawala’s replied that they would be pleased to meet him but could only do so if the Prince himself came to the Railway station where they would be working such that their delivery is not impacted under any circumstance.

The Dabbawalas deliver lunches despite severe weather conditions in a city with one of most congested civic infrastructures, zigzagging across the city by mere use of bicycles and railway transportation. The local Dabbawalas at the receiving and the sending ends are known to the customers personally, so that there is trust in the business relationship. Also, they are all well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, which allows them to access any destination with ease. In between, the dabbas change several hands by an algorithm that shall be the focus of our attention now. The algorithm used is as described below:

i) First, each morning the dabbawala’s collect the lunchboxes from households and mark it with a unique code.

ii) They all then gather at a designated location to sort the boxes and group them into carriages

iii) The second dabbawala then marks the carriages to clearly specify the destination local rail station and the building address to which the dabbas have to be delivered.

iv) A third dabbawala then boards the train with the carriages and drops them at each station

v) The fourth dabbawala is responsible to pick the carriages, decode the address and deliver it to the final destination.


This process is reversed in the evening to deliver back the empty lunchboxes.

It is worthwhile to note here that the algorithm used by partially literate dabbawala’s effectively capitalizes on the concept of distributed processing and has been compared conceptually with Google’s  Map-Reduce algorithm, which has been published almost a century later. In the big data world, Apache Hadoop is a framework that allows parallel processing of large amounts of data in a distributed environment. It divides the problem by slicing large data into equal chunks of datasets to be processed individually. Hadoop has 2 major components and they function similar to the algorithm adopted by the dabbawala’s. This comparison is made below:

i)  One component is the HDFS file system to which a large dataset (in terabytes or more) is fed and it slices the data into equal chunks and distributes each of these to a machine running within the cluster. Analogously, each household submits the lunchbox to a dabbawala.

ii) The mapper is then used to generate key value pairs by using hashing functions after which these smaller datasets are processed individually. The Mumbai dabbawala’s perform a job similar to the mapper as they collect lunchboxes at a central place where these boxes are tagged and put in carriages bearing unique codes.

iii) The computations, sorting and aggregation operations are performed between the mapper and reducer and the results are written to a GFS file system. This phase is called the sort and shuffle phase. The dabbawala’s use sort and shuffle to sort carriages that need to go to a common destination and are put into respective trains.

iv) The function of the reducer is to read from each of these file systems and take data relevant to these reducers (identified by a unique key). Analogous to the working in the reduce phase, the Dabbawala picks up the carriage at each of the railway station, and delivers every box in that to the respective customers.

Thus, by independently working and concentrating on their specific tasks, the dabbawala’s produce a fascinating outcome by means of utilizing on a parallelized environment. All these incredible features of this business model make it so unique that it has become a case study for MBA’s at the venerated Harvard Business School. Experts believe that the Mumbai Dabbawala business organization is a success story owing to its human resource system- because of their commendable way of hiring developing, managing and rewarding people.

The pluses have been tremendous, but no system is without flaws/issues. The Dabbawala’s being resistant to technology may lead to deterrence in their customers/sponsors in the future (an area they could have earned a lot of financial gain from). Also, their advertising scheme is still old school and lacking. With the advanced and literate population, this does not seem to work very well. Yet, the Dabbawala’s are confident that their services and dedication to work will lead them to sustain all odds and cross all hurdles. This case study has indeed been a classic example of application of a network chain model and one that is very inspiring.






One Response to “ The Mumbai Dabbawala Network ”


    This is a very interesting article and I recently saw a video about the Mumbai Dabbawalas also efficiently helping the underprivileged children in India. There are 200 hundred thousands of children on India streets who go hungry and some even starve to death. So when these dabbawalas collect the lunch boxes back from people, they found atleast 16 tons of food left uneaten.The challenge was to get this food to the children without affecting their six sigma system. So people were given “share my dabba” stickers to allow volunteers to share the uneaten food. When the dabbas were collected on the way back, they separate the one with sticker and the volunteers share that food with hungry children on the streets! I think this is incredible!!

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