Supply Chain Management

02 Sep

Case I


Dabba was a generic, colloquial term used explicitly in Mumbai to describe any cylindrical box. In the context of meal delivery service, a dabba was an aluminum box carried by its handle like a tin of paint. Each dabba housed three to four interlocking steel containers and was held together by a collapsible metallic wire handle. Each of these containers accommodated an individual food item found in a typical midday lunch.

Wallah was a label for a tradesperson in a particular profession. For example, a paperwallah was an individual who delivered newspapers. Taken together, a dabbawallah was a courier who picked up a lunch-full dabba from a client’s home in the morning, left it outside of the client’s workplace for pick-up, retrieved the empty dabba after the lunch was consumed and returned the empty dabba to the client’s home in the evening.

On November 7, 2003, Raghunath Medge, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (The Trust), had just returned to his office in suburban Mumbai after meeting with Britain’s Prince Charles who was on an official visit to India’s commercial capital.

The Trust was the managing organization of the dabbawallah meal delivery network. The dabbawallahs’ service, often referred to as tiffinwallahs outside of Mumbai, was cited internationally by management schol­ars and industry executives as an exemplar of supply chain and service management. The service had acquired a reputation for its delivery reliability in Mumbai. International interest in the dabbawallahs was largely due to a 1998 article published in Forbes:

Mumbai’s “tiffinwallahs” have achieved a level of service to which Western businesses can only aspire. “Efficient organization” is not the first thought that comes to mind in India, but when the profit motive is given free rein, anything is possible. To appreciate Indian efficiency at its best, watch the tiffinwallahs at work. Documentaries on the dabbawallahs were produced by the BBC, M1V and ZEE Tv, and their delivery performance earned them recogni­tion in the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Medge, who had personally demonstrated to Prince Charles how the dabbawallah meal deliv­ery system worked, was himself in the spotlight of late. He had recently been invited by the Confederation of Indian Industry to speak to its members at a leadership summit in a special module titled “Leading Without Suits and Ties.” He was also approached by human resource executives and asked to present seminars on team building. Additionally, he was asked by corporations, such as Siemens India, to make a presentation to their employees on the dabbawal­lahs’ working practices. Finally, he was also reg­ularly sought by the print and television media within and outside of India.

The dabbawallah service had begun informally in 1890 in Mumbai. According to Medge:

A Parsi banker working in Ballard Pier employed a young man, who came down from the Poona district to fetch his lunch every day. Business picked up through referrals and soon our pioneer dabba-carrying entrepreneur had to call for more helping hands from his village. Such was the origin of the dabbawallahs.

However trivial the task may sound, it is of vital importance since havoc is caused if the client had to skip his home-cooked food or worse, carry the dabba himself in the ever so crowded Mumbai trains during the rush hour!

By the early 20th century, people from all parts of India were migrating to Mumbai in large numbers. Once they found a source of livelihood and settled down, they wanted home-cooked food at their workplaces. Home-cooked food had a comfort level for various reasons. First, the food was prepared in the ambience of a domestic kitchen, with recipes that were tried and tested, and that resulted in familiar fare. Second, home­cooked food was comparatively inexpensive. The dabbawallahs were initially charging two annas per month per dabba for their delivery service.

Working independently and in small groups for decades, the dabbawallahs had united in 1954 to put together a rudimentary co-operative. This umbrella organization was officially registered in 1956 as a charitable trust under the name Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust. At that time, some of the dabbawallahs employed delivery boys to carry their dab bas and transport them along their routes on bicycles and pushcarts.

These dabbawallahs would collect the fees from their clients every month and pay the boys whatever they could negotiate with them. This changed in 1983 when the Trust adopted an owner-partner system. Under this new system, the practice of subcontracting was dispensed with and dabbawallahs started to receive equal earnings. The delivery boys’ system was con­verted into an apprenticeship system wherein new recruits were trained for at least two to three years on a fixed remuneration before they became full-time dabbawallahs.

By 2003, more than 5,000 dabbawallahs worked under the aegis of the Trust. Together they delivered about 175,000 lunches daily in Mumbai (see Exhibit 2). They served a total area that covered approximately 75 kilometres (lan) of public transport. The dabbawallah business generated approximately Rs380 million per annum. Given the two-way route for each dabba, the number of deliveries worked out to more than 350,000 per day. Despite the sheer number of daily deliveries, the failure rate reported by the media numbered one in two months, or one in every 15 million deliveries.

The Nutan Mumbai

Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust

The Trust was responsible for managing the overall meal delivery system. It worked in close co-ordination with the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association, a forum that provided opportunities for social interactions among the dabbawallahs, and the Dakkhan Mavle Sahakari Patpedhi, a credit union that catered to the financial needs of individual dabbawallahs by pro­viding personal loans. Given its charitable trust status, the Trust was also involved in community initiatives by providing free food and accommodation to low-income families at some pilgrim­age centres.

The Trust had a three-tier structure: Executive Committee, mukadams and dabbawallahs. Under this structure, the basic operating unit was the team. Each team, which comprised between five and eight dabbawallahs, was headed by a mukadam. Having risen from the ranks of the dabbawallahs, a mukadam’s primary daily responsibility involved the sorting of the dabbas. However, as team leader, the mukadam performed several administrative tasks that included maintaining records of client payments, arbitrating disputes between dabbawallahs and customers, and apprentice training.

  Number of Number of
Year Dabbawallahs Customers
1900 58 1,445
1905 75 1,965
1910 142 4,120
1915 204 6,504
1920 321 9,675
1925 407 12,140
1930 695 22,865
1935 1,024 34,230
1940 1,206 42,340
1945 1,715 64,240
1950 2,106 82,000
1955 2,552 105,120
1960 3,216 140,000
1965 4,406 198,100
1970 4,605 176,040
1975 4,904 215,000
1980 5,511 275,075
1985 5,524 190,645
1990 5,102 130,860
1995 5,180 142,260
2000 5,164 165,670
2003 5,142 175,040

The mukadam was also in charge of acquiring new clients for the team and managing customer satisfaction. New customers purchased their dabba from the dabbawallahs when service was commenced. Dabbas were typically replaced, at cost to the customer, once every two years.

Seven to eight mukadams typically aggregated their efforts and constituted a profit centre; each profit centre was referred to as a “group.” There were about 120 groups in total. While each group was managed autonomously, its members stepped in without hesitation to help other groups· in dealing with emergencies such as dabbawallah absenteeism. Monthly group maintenance costs totalled Rs35,000, covering the maintenance of the bicycles, pushcarts and wooden boxes the dabbawallahs used in their daily deliveries.

The 13 members of the Executive Committee, which were elected by the general body every five years, co-ordinated the activities of the various groups. The Committee, which under­took all major decisions for the Trust and worked on the principles specified in the Co-operative Societies Act, met on the 15th of each month. Operational issues typically dominated each meeting’s agenda. Examples of such issues included disputes with the Mumbai city railways over dabbawallahs not carrying their monthly passes or the ID issued to them by the Trust, and with the city police when dabbawallahs parked their pushcarts or bicycles where parking was not permitted. Annually, there were few reports of lost or stolen dabbas. In such instances, clients were reimbursed by the individual dabbawallah or given a free dabba.

The dabbawallahs were a homogenous group in many ways. Its members, traditionally male, hailed from the same geographical region­known as Mavla-Iocated east of the Sahyadri (Western Ghats) near Pune, and they spoke the same language (Marathi). They shared similar customs and traditions, such as gathering together for a week every April for a festival in their hometown. They wore the same dress, a loose white dhoti shirt, cotton pajamas and their trademark white oval cap.

All of these combined to form a distinct local identity for the dabbawallahs. They were easily recognized even in the busiest of locations. Pedestrians and commuters yielded to the dab­bawallahs in order not to interfere with their service delivery. Seemingly always in a rush, the dabbawallahs were known for their reliability and work ethic. They ascribed to the traditional Indian belief that “work is worship.” Averaging 55 years in age, dabbawallahs were typically lean, agile, active and physically fit. While the minimum level of education of a dabbawallah was grade seven, most never got past grade eight schooling.

Each dabbawallah earned a monthly income between Rs5,OOO and Rs6,OOO. Out of this income, each dabbawallah was responsible for paying:

Rs. 120 for the monthly railway pass that allowed for unlimited access to Mumbai’s railways;

Rs. 60 for the maintenance of the bicycle or the pushcart (which were owned by the group or profit centre); and the compulsory monthly contribution of Rsl5 to the Trust.


The dabbawallah meal distribution network was characterized by a combination of a “baton relay system” in which dabbas were handed off between dabbawallahs at various points in the delivery process and a “hub and spokes” system in which the sorting of dabbas was done at specific railway locations from where individual spokes branched out for distribution. There was no local historical model on which this distribution network was designed. All design decisions were driven by the singular purpose of delivering a dabba in time for the customer’s lunch. The delivery processes had largely remained unchanged since their inception even though the environment of service delivery had changed. For example, the delivery system did not rely on the use of computers.

According to Medge:

“If we were to use computers, we. would be out of business. It is not because we do not know how to use computers but the system itself is not amenable to the use of technology in whatever form.

The only major change in the dabbawallahs’ delivery model was the fine-tuning of the coding system in 1966. The number of customers using the delivery service had continued to grow, and without some form of common identification that all dabbawallahs could follow, the sorting process at the hubs was likely to become overly time-consuming. Medge observed:

We decided to decentralize the coding at the level of groups and each group was free to develop its own coding system based on simple and easily identifiable numbers and signs. In time, each group gradually developed its own distinctive color code-from a spectrum of combinations of the seven primary colors-serving as the first line of identification for any dabbawallah”.

The workday for a dabbawallah started with the first delivery pick-up at 8:30 a.m. Leaving their Mumbai home, most of the time by bicycle, the dabbawallahs arrived punctually to the minute at the doorstep of each collection point, although they might not be wearing a watch. The collection point would typically be the client’s home. Customers were aware of their responsibilities in the delivery process. Each knew that if the dabba was not ready for pick-up, the dabbawallah simply moved on; the dabbawallah did not wait. Each dabbawallah was personally responsible for the daily delivery of 30 to 35 dabbas. Dabbawallahs found that number to be usually manageable in terms of personal memory and physical handling capacity.

8:25 a.m. The dabba is filled with lunch at the client’s kitchen and kept outside the door of the residence.

8:30 a.m. The dabbawallah arrives, picks up the dabba and moves on knocking at the door only if the dabba is not seen. Under normal circumstances there is no interaction with any member of the client’s household.

8:38 a.m. The dabba is placed on the bicycle or pushcart together with dabbas collected from other customers.

9:20 a.m. Bicycles and pushcarts drawn by individual dabbawallahs arrive from various collection centres to the suburban railway station.

9:30 a.m. The sorting operation begins with dabbas sorted according to destinations and placed in cartages that are specific to each destination. The cartages come in two standard sizes, accommodating 24 and 48 dabbas each.

9:41 a.m. The suburban train arrives. The cartages, normally numbering five to six, are loaded into the special compartment located next to the driver’s cabin.

10:21 a.m. The train arrives at one of the major hubs. The cartages are unloaded and bundled with those arriving from other collection centres. They are resorted according to destinations.

11:05 a.m. Cartages are loaded into the suburban train for onward journey to the final destination terminals.

11:45 a.m. The suburban train reaches the terminal station. Cartages are unloaded and dabbas are re-sorted, now according to specific delivery routes.

12:1 0 p.m. Dabbas are placed in destination-specific cartages and hitched typically on to bicycles or pushcarts for delivery to individual clients.

12:30 p.m. The dabba is delivered at the doorstep of the client’s workplace.

The delivery process is reversed in the afternoon. The empty dabba is picked up between 1: 15 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. for its return to the client’s home early that evening (e.g. by 5:30 p.m.).

The hub was essentially a mid-point station in the suburban railway network where trains con­verged before branching out to other parts of the city. Dadar, Bandra, Andheri and Kurla were the four major hubs for the dabbawallahs’ meal distri­bution network (see Exhibit 5). As epicentres that had to be passed through while moving from one end of the city to the other, the hubs were crucial links in the delivery system. They were also places where delivery errors could take place. That was why each of the hubs was actively managed by the mukadams, who stepped in to co-ordinate the sorting operation at each hub. As trains kept arriv­ing in rapid succession, it became imperative to orchestrate three activities-sorting, loading and unloading-simultaneously. Doing so was a challenge during Mumbai’s rush hour when thousands of commuters were also getting on or off each train. Given the tight time schedule for Mumbai’s railways, the dabbawallahs had to complete their tasks quickly and precisely.

From these hubs, the sorted dabbas spoked out to various destinations-including the termi­nal stations of the city railway-where a third set of dabbawallahs was waiting to take over. The dabbas were off-loaded at various terminals and re-sorted, depending now upon specific customer location information, such as the street, building and the floor. The dabbas were then handed over to the fourth set of handlers, individual dabbawallahs, who were assigned to specific delivery routes in Mumbai city. Placing the dabbas on pushcarts or bicycles, or in some cases carried by hand or in crates on top of their heads (a full crate of dabbas could weigh up to 100 kilograms), the dabbawallahs delivered the home-cooked lunches to the designated recipient by 12:30 p.m.

An hour or two later, the empty dabbas­dropped off by the satiated client at the same spot used for dabba pick-up–were collected to be routed backwards on their return journey. In short, each dabba was picked up at the source by one dabbawallah for transport to the railway terminal, sorted and loaded by a second dabbawallah, unloaded and re-sorted at the hub or destination station by a third dabbawallah and delivered by a fourth dabbawallah to the home from which the dabba was picked up earlier in the day. The exact combination of dabbawallahs used each day varied with the volume and density of traffic, but it remained the same on the return route.

Since each dabba traveled through four sets of hands each day, it was important to identify· and monitor the dabbas while in transit. This was done through a system of codes painted on the top of each dabba’s exterior. The originating station and the destination station were the primary codes. They were crucial for the sorting operations that took place at each of the hubs, and they were normally identified by alphabets that any sorter could recognize. The other encoded data included the apartment, floor, building and street the dabba originated from and was to be delivered to. The codes included symbols (e.g. dashes, dots, etc.), alphabets, numbers and other forms of notation which likely made little sense outside of the dabbawallah community, but which the dabbawallahs recognized and understood instantly. The movement of the dabbas was monitored solely through these codes and client names were not utilized.

Pulling one dabba aside, Medge explained:

The codes “K-BO-IO-19/A/15” on top of this dabba mean the following: K was the dabbawallah who picked it up; BO meant Borivali, the area from where the dabba was collected; I0 referred to the Nariman Point area, the destination; 19/N15 referred to the 19th building; A was the dabbawallah who delivered it; and 15 was the floor of the building where the customer’s workplace was located.


1. Comment on how following issues may be affecting the dabbawallah system:

  • Competition and resulting shrink in customer base
  • Lifestyle Changes
  • Workforce Management

2. How do the dabbawallahs find recruits?

3. How can an incentive system based on “equal pay for all” work?

4. Do the dabbawallahs know their clients?

5. How does the dabbawallah system ensure that the individual links in the delivery network do not break down?

6. How is the Trust dealing with the issue of growth?

7. How is the Trust coping with dabbawallah competitors?

8. The world around you is changing but the dabbawallahs have not changed; why not?

9. Is there a future for Dabbawallahs?

10. Following are the foundations for the success of the dabbawallah service

  • Low-Cost Delivery
  • Delivery Reliability
  • Decentralization
  • Suburban Railway Network
  • Perceived Equality.





Company Profile

Indian Steels Limited (ISL) is a Rs. 6000 crore company established in the year 1986. The company envisaged being a continuously growing top class company to deliver superior quality and cost effective products for infrastructure development. With major customers being from Public Sector Undertakings, the company has established itself well and is said to be considering its expansion plan and proposed merger with another steel making giant in the country.

In 1996, owing to the cut throat competition in the emerging dynamic global markets, ISL emphasized on both effectiveness and efficiency. The company strongly believed in focusing on its core competency (i.e. manufacturing of steel) and outsourcing the rest to its reliable partners. Outsourcing of its outbound logistics was one such move in this direction. ISL out sourced its stockyards and other warehousing services to a third party called Consignment Agent, who was selected on an annual basis through a process of competitive bidding. The CA was responsible for the entire distribution of the products within the geographical limits of the allotted market segment and was paid by the company according to the loads of transaction (measured in metric tonnes) dealt by him. The company also believed in maintaining long-term relationships with the suppliers as well as the buyers. It always prioritized the needs of its regular and important customers over others and this worked out to be a win-win strategy. The case brings out the model of outsourcing logistics the company has adapted for the enhancement of its supply chain competency and thus leveraging more on its core competency which led to increased productivity.

Indian Steels Limited (ISL) is a Rs. 6000 crore company established in the’ year 1986. The company envisaged being a continuously growing top class company to deliver superior quality and cost effective products for infrastructure development. The company performed with a mission to attain 7 million ton liquid steel capacity through technological up-gradation, operational efficiency arid expansion; to produce steel with international standards of cost and quality; and to meet the aspirations of the stakeholders. The production started in the year 1988 and initially, it manufactured Angles, Pig Irons) Beams and Wire Rods that were mainly used for constructing roads) dams and bridges. These products were mainly supplied to Public Sector Undertakings such as Railways, Public Works Department (PWD) Central Public Works Department (CPWD) Rashtriya Setu Nigam Limited, Audyogik Kendra Vikas Nigam Ltd. and various foundry units. The company had its headquarters at Raipur with three stockyards (a kind of warehouse with a huge land to store the products).

The company has established itself well and is said to be considering its expansion plan and proposed merger with another steel making giant in the country. The company was awarded ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and ISO 18001 certifications. The temperature in the plant premises is reportedly about 6°C lesser than that of the township, thanks to the greenery being maintained therein.

Logistics Outsourcing

Outbound logistics which basically connects the source of supply with the sources of demand with an objective of bridging the gap between the market demand and capabilities of the supply sources was always a problem for companies operating in this industry. Consisting of components like warehousing network, transportation network) inventory control system and supporting information systems outbound logistics was always playing a key role in making the right product available at the right place, at the right time at the least possible cost. In 1996 owing to the cut throat competition in the emerging dynamic global markets, ISL emphasized on both effectiveness and efficiency. The company strongly believed in focusing on its core competency (Le. manufacturing of steel) and outsourcing the rest to its reliable partners. Outsourcing of its outbound logistics was one such move in this direction.

Recognizing the growing demand for its products from the big, diversified and geographically­dispersed customers, the company started expanding the number of warehousing stockyards. From a humble beginning, the company today has 26 stockyards; most of them are outsourced. Each of the outsourced stockyards was managed by a third party, which the company referred to as Consignment Agent (hereafter referred to as CA) in the area. The CA was selected on an annual basis through competitive bidding process. The performance of CA was closely monitored by a company representative (full time employee of ISL working in the site of CA). The CA was responsible for the entire distribution of the products within the geographical limits of the allotted market segment and Was paid by the company according to the loads of transaction (measured in metric tonnes) dealt by him. Based on their sales turnover CAs were trifurcated into A, Band C categories. The CAs with a monthly turnover of Rs. 150-200 crore fell under A category) whereas those with Rs. 100 – 150 crore were B and less than Rs. 100 \ crore were C category.

In addition to the company representative) a team of marketing division operated in the town where, the site of CA was located. This department was responsible or estimating the future demand, translating it into orders and sending to the manufacturing plant. Material dispatch was done using either one or a combination of the two modes: Rail, Road. While using rail as the mode of transportation, the company had a choice to book a Normal Rake (a full train with about 35 wagons, each wagon with an approximate capacity of 60 tonnes) or a Jumbo Rake (a full train of about 52 wagons, each wagon with an approximate capacity of 60 tonnes). At times, the company was engaging the services of the CONCOR (Container Corporation of India) where a train of 62 to 70 wagons, each wagon with about 26 tonnes capacity was used for transportation. Instead, if the company decided to send the material by road, the company had a choice between Trailor (25-30 tonnes} and Truck (15-20 tonnes). The choice of transportation mode was based on the quantity of dispatch.

As soon as the material was dispatched from the manufacturing plant, the respective CA used to get a Stock Transfer Chalaan electronically through Virtual Private Network, which was developed by a professional software service provider. In-transit, monitoring was generally done with the help of Indian Railways, if the mode was Rail. Otherwise, truck/trailor drivers were contacted through mobile phone. Transit generally took five to six days, providing time for CA to plan for receiving materials. The CA used to utilize this time for arranging material handling devices like heavy cranes and required labour. The material thus unloaded was reaching the warehousing stockyard where CA was responsible for arranging the materials as per the warehousing norms of ISL.

The company broadly classified materials into Long Products and Rounds. Products falling into each category were further classified by their size, shape and utility and the company used a distinct colour code for this purpose. Each subcategory of material had a specific place for downloading. The company used Bin System for this purpose. While downloading the material in stockyard, the company norms insisted that CA arrange for providing Dunnagt Material. This enabled the CA to store material without 1 direct contact with the land surface and thus reduced the probability of material deterioration. Material was stored in the stockyard until an authorized representative of the customer used to come and collect it. While dispatching material to the customer, a Loading Slip was generated against the Delivery Order. The company” also believed in maintaining long-term relationships with the suppliers as well as the buyers. It always prioritized the needs of its regular and important customers over others and this worked out to be a win-win strategy.

Operational problems were majorly because of uncertainties in transportation, fluctuation in supply of electricity and the load bearing capacity of the soil in the stockyard. Some: more problems were encountered whenever there was a change in CA and these were overcome by training the employees of the new CA and keeping the old CA responsible for the: material in his stockyard for six months after the contract as well. Observations reveal that, at times there were situations wherein CAs had to do those things which they were not legally supposed to do (like subcontracting) because of the pressures mounted by political leaders with selfish interests.

Despite these problems, this model of outsourcing logistics was working out very well for the company. The practices, which were started in the year 1996 have sustained major changes in the environment and are being practiced even in 2006. It has enhanced the supply chain competency of the company by enabling it leverage more on its core competency, which leads to increased productivity.


1. Analyze the case in view of the logistics outsourcing practices of the ISL.

2. Discuss the importance of logistics outsourcing with reference to supply chain management.

3. Suggest strategies for further strengthening the supply chain of ISL.

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