An Amazing Success Story of Teamwork

Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association  – “The Dabbawalas”

Nutan TiffinThe Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association is a streamlined 123-year-old organisation with approx 4,500 semi-literate members providing a quality door-to-door service to a large and loyal customer base.

This journey began in 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bachche and Ananth Mandra Reddy started a lunch delivery service with about 100 men. This small organisation was unionized informally in 1930, but later on a charitable trust was registered in 1956 under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. The commercial wing of this trust was registered in 1968 as Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s AssociationNowadays, the service often includes cooking of food in addition to the delivery.

dabbawallaOnce a news team was covering the real-time delivery system for their documentary, but the film crew quickly lost the dabbawala in the congestion of the train station. The crew filming dabbawalas in action was amazed at their speed. When they reach to the destination they  found that the lunch had arrived long before them.

More than 175,000 to 200,000 lunch boxes get moved every day by an estimated 4,500  dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality.

How has NMTBSA managed to survive through these tumultuous years? How this service is almost always uninterrupted, even on the days of severe weather such as monsoons. The answer lies in a twin process that combines competitive collaboration between team members with a high level of technical efficiency in logistics management.


The entire system depends on teamwork and meticulous timing. Tiffins are collected from homes between 7.00 am and 9.00 am, and taken to the nearest railway station. At various intermediary stations, they are hauled onto platforms and sorted out for area-wise distribution, so that a single tiffin could change hands three to four times in the course of its daily journey. At Mumbai’s downtown stations, the last link in the chain, a final relay of dabbawalas fan out to the tiffins’ destined bellies.

Lunch hour over, the whole process moves into reverse and the tiffins return to suburban homes by 6.00 pm. To better understand the complex sorting process, let’s take an example.

  • At Station A, there are four groups of dabbawalas, each has twenty members and each member services 40 customers. That makes 3,200 tiffins in all.
  • These 3,200 tiffins are collected by 9.00 am, reach the station and are sorted according to their destinations by 10.00 am when the ‘Dabbawala Special’ train arrives.
  • The railway provides sorting areas on platforms as well as special compartments on trains traveling south between 10.00a.m and 11.30a.m.
  • During the journey, these 80 dabbawalas regroup according to the number of tiffins to be delivered in a particular area, and not according to the groups they actually belong to.
  • If 150 tiffins are to be delivered in the Station B area, then four people are assigned to that station, keeping in mind one person can carry no more than 35-40 tiffins.
  • During the earlier sorting process, each dabbawala would have concentrated on locating only those 40 tiffins under his charge, wherever they come from, and this specialization makes the entire system efficient and error-free. 
  • Typically it takes about ten to fifteen minutes to search, assemble and arrange 40 tiffins onto a crate, and by 12.30 pm they are delivered to offices.

 Elegant logistics

In the dabbawalas’ elegant logistics system, using 25 kms of public transport, 10 km of footwork and involving multiple transfer points, mistakes rarely happen.
According to a Forbes 1998 article, one mistake for every eight million deliveries is the norm. How do they achieve virtual six-sigma quality with zero documentation? For one, the system limits the routing and sorting to a few central points. Secondly, a simple color code determines not only packet routing but packet prioritising as lunches transfer from train to bicycle to foot.

Times do change but the dabbawala trade has kept up with the changes. Today’s tiffin boxes are sleeker than the huge, unwieldy copper boxes of the past. During the 1980s, it used to be Rs. 50 but today the rates are Rs. 250 per dabba. But certain things have not changed — the dress, the dedication and the punctuality.

Some Accolades

1. In 1998, Forbes Magazine found its reliability to be that of a six sigma standard.This implies that the Dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every 6 million deliveries, despite most of the delivery staff being illiterate.

Nutan lecture


2.  The BBC has produced a documentary on dabbawalas.

4.  Some of the dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in some of the top business schools of India.

3.  Prince Charles, during his visit to India, visited them . Prince Charles also invited them to his wedding with Camilla Parker Bowles in London on 9 April 2005.

Nutan Tiffin1

5.  The New York Times reported in 2007 that the 117-year-old dabbawala industry continues to grow at a rate of 5–10% per year.

6.  ISO 9001:2000 certified by the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand.         


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