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The Logistics of Lunch


Logistics, a word widely said to have originated from the military ranks centuries ago is currently on the cusp of technological and digital changes with solutions that promise to transform every sector in logistics, be it driver-less trucks, automated warehouses, blockchain enabled documentation etc..

However there is a grouping of people handling logistics distribution that does not seem to require these advances and have been handling logistics in the same effective way since 1890..

I am talking about the logistics services provided by the Mumbai Dabbawala in India delivering lunch on a daily basis..

Ok, but what does Logistics have to do with Lunch..??

Lunch, is a variable meal for many.. Not so important for some, extremely important for some, unaffordable for some and may be the only meal of the day for some..

However, to 130,000+ people in Mumbai, India who work full time, a home cooked meal packed in this Dabba (lunch box) is a “must have” on a daily basis..

logistics of lunch
Image Credit :

This is the number of people currently being served by the Mumbai Dabbawala service which has been delivering lunch to its patrons since 1890, come rain or shine, in the middle of wars, monsoons, famines, communal riots and terrorist attacks..

A Dabbawala is the person who carries around these Dabbas and delivers them to the customers..

If you are wondering why can’t the people carry their own lunch to work, it is mainly because

  1. the lunch may not be ready at the crack of dawn when they need to leave home to avoid the morning peak hour rush
  2. they may not be able to carry this in a crowded train and risk it dropping or falling off or dismantling all over other passengers..

If you have ever been in a crowded peak hour train in Mumbai you will understand this..

So for these 130,000+ customers, the Mumbai Dabbawala has been a saviour for decades and Logistics has everything to do in terms of how this lunch is delivered to the customers just in time..

5000+ Dabbawalas who form part of this service pickup/deliver and return between 250-260,000 dabbas everyday on a round trip basis with a reliability that has shone the spotlight on their logistical capabilities..

It has been reported that Harvard Business School gave the Mumbai Dabbawala a Six Sigma rating which means the service makes fewer than 3.4 mistakes per million transactions which translates to around 400 delayed or missing dabbas in a year..

The organisation and seamless execution of their business has been the study of many business schools and has piqued the interest of many famous personalities including Richard Branson and Prince Charles..

So how are these people able to handle such a huge volume without any technology of any kind involved..??

The secret and success of this logistics movement is attributed to the way in which the logistics is organized, managed, processed and most importantly driven by organisational culture..


Capitalising on the Logistics Network

The backbone of the Dabbawala’s activities is the network they use and the modus operandi they adopt..

  • The Dabbawala picks up the Dabbas from various customers’ homes and takes it to the nearest train station, where it is sorted into various destination areas and loaded onto wooden crates..
  • These crates are taken by train to various stations depending on the proximity to the destination..
  • Once it arrives at the destination station, it is sorted again and handed over to another Dabbawala who delivers it to the customer’s office before lunchtime.. Sounds a bit like the workings of a Consol Box..??
  • Post lunch, this process works in reverse so that the Dabba is returned to the customer’s home for it to be utilised again the next day..

Forward and Reverse Logistics at its best.. 🙂

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For this forward and reverse logistics, the Dabbawala’s make good use of Mumbai’s extensive Suburban Railway network..

This network is perhaps one of the most complex and most used urban rail networks in the world with an extensive coverage.. This network even allows the Dabbawalas to travel with their bicycles and handcarts between stations and customer’s homes and offices..

The Dabbawala’s labor force is organised into approximately 200 groups of 25 people with each of these groups having individual local areas of operation..

Just in Time Deliveries

As with all logistics services and more so with time sensitive deliveries like lunch, the Dabbawalas need to ensure that the Dabbas are picked up, delivered and returned on time as well to optimise usage of the assets (the Dabba) on a rotational basis..

logistics of lunch - just in time

Because the network they use (the railway system) works on a schedule, pretty much like any mode of transportation in cargo deliveries, the Dabbawalas have their own daily schedule which determines when what tasks needs to be done and the time allotted for each of these tasks..

In order to achieve maximum efficiency, the Dabbawala’s system allows each worker 40 seconds to load the crates (consolidated and sorted as above) onto the trains at the busier main stations and about 20 seconds for less busier smaller stations..

This schedule allocation allows the activities to be synchronised and done in a disciplined manner.. Missed deadlines and timeframes are noted alongwith the name of the Dabbawala responsible for the same and alternate delivery methods are adopted to ensure that the customer doesn’t suffer..


Making the process flow simple

In logistics, having a simple yet effective process flow is key and this includes the way in which information is secured and communicated, combined with responsible management of the process flow..

The Dabbawalas have perfected this technique through the effective use of simple processes and codes to communicate the origin, route and destination..

For example, the lids of the Dabbas have markings indicating the Origin railway station of the dabba, the destination district, code of the building where it is to be delivered, the floor it must go to, name of the customer (if there are multiple customers on that floor), code of the Dabbawala who will be making the deliver at the destination..

Logistics of Lunch - Mumbai Dabbawala
Image – Mumbai Dabbawala

These markings serve as a coding system that the regular Dabbawalas can decipher and deliver to the right people without displaying compromising details such as office/home addresses etc..

Since the same workers do the same routes on a daily basis, they are familiar with the codes, the dabbas themselves, the people who should be receiving them etc..


Standard Operating Procedures

As with any logistics businesses involving distribution and delivery, there has to be some set standards in order to achieve consistent and reliable production.. If the logistics service provider allows the customer to shift the goal post all the time, they will not be able to perform consistently..

In line with this, the Dabbawalas encourage the customers to stick to a standard dimension dabba.. This way they are able to pack, sort, transfer and unpack all dabbas within the 20-40 seconds allotted to them..

The crate dimensions are also standardised to fit on the push carts, baskets, bicycles and trains.. Any customer who wants to deviate from this standard dimension may be charged special handling just like in a standard package distribution and delivery model..


Training & Organisational Culture

To avoid errors or misdeliveries and to avoid error in the pick up or drop off, each of the Dabbawala groups have back up workers ready to fill in or take over as required..

This of course necessitates continuous and on the job training which is a key feature in this network and they are trained in the various activities involved such as collecting, sorting, transporting, finance, and customer relations..

Although this is a totally labour intensive business operating in a highly variable environment, the Dabbawalas have the required capacity to handle any issues that may happen and any emergencies while also making sure that the operation stays nimble without unnecessary overheads..

This business which started in 1890 has carried on with a set culture which has been passed down the generations even when the organisation has grown.. The organisation’s culture guides the Dabbawalas in what and how they handle the business and provides them with a strong sense of belonging..

Some of the requirements that they follow strictly are:

  • Dabbawalas are not allowed to eat till they have completed their deliveries
  • Dabbawalas will not be late in picking up or delivering the dabbas
  • Customers are also expected to maintain the timings and repeat offenders will be dropped
  • Workers are fined, suspended or dismissed for repeated mistakes and negligence which affects customer service
  • Workers are able to bring issues to the attention of their superiors in order to ensure seamless functioning

One of the other reasons for the success of the Dabbawala is their close knit affinity and non-discrimination policy..

For example all Dabbawalas wear the same white clothes with the trademark white Gandhi cap which provides them with a sense of belonging, identity, pride and in some cases also allows them to part traffic on the busy Mumbai roads..

All dabbawalas are considered as equal partners and don’t have to address their supervisors (mukadams) as Sir or any other higher form of greeting or salutation.. This uniformity and the culture it has created plays a major part in the success of this operation..

Almost all of the Dabbawalas belong to the Vakari community who share the same culture, language, values, work ethic, diet, and religious beliefs and mostly remain in groups for their entire working careers..



The business of logistics should make it easy for consumers to receive their goods on time.. “Deliver food on time every time“.. At the end of the day, this is the Dabbawala’s aim.. This is ingrained in the Dabbawalas as part of their organisational culture..

Although in modern and tech crazy India there are many services that offer food delivery and cater to local groups, the Dabbawala’s model and business has no rivals both in terms of scale and price..

This business has been around for more than a century and even with all the technological advances, no other logistics or delivery company has come close to replicating it..

This, combined with the organisation, management and strict adherence to processes have made the Mumbai Dabbawalas a logistical example to be emulated by everyone..

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Hariesh Manaadiar
Hariesh Manaadiar
I am Hariesh Manaadiar, the Founder of Shipping and Freight Resource.. I have been in the dynamic shipping and freight industry for over three decades and have worked in several sectors.. I share my experiences and knowledge of the industry through this blog for those looking for help in the industry.. Stay subscribed for more free useful content about shipping, freight, maritime, logistics, supply chain and trade..


  1. Thanks to Prof.Deshpande – president and CEO of Six Sigma and Advanced Controls in Louisville, Kentucky, and a visiting professor of management at the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics in Lexington for below comment which highlights a key aspect of the Mumbai Dabbawalla’s excellent performance – which is “Internal Excellence

    Dear Hariesh,

    Please learn more from my article, The Secret of Exemplary Performance (BizEd, September/October 2019) how Dabbawalas are able to achieve such outstanding performance . AACSB accredits Business School curricula in America. Other organizations can use the same process as the Dabbawalas but they will not be able to achieve similar performance. The paper explains why.

    We have signed an MOU with the Dabbawalas to teach folks the secret of exemplary performance in a day-long workshop. I will be in India January 5 – February 29, 2020 and if you are based in India, we can discuss the possibility of your organization hosting the workshop for mutual benefit.

    Warm regards.
    Prof. Deshpande


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