In the metro city of Mumbai (India) an office going employee has to travel up and down from the place of his stay to the work place on average 3 to 4 hours. Therefore he has to start early and his wife or mother may not be able to prepare the food for his lunch and pack it and give him. If one would like to enjoy homely and hot food “Dabbawalas� are the homely food carrying work force. They collect the food container from the employee’s residence at a convenient time and deliver the food at the employee’s office regularly and in time by means of a systematic and well coordinated manpower chain. Their efficient working is making management institutes learn from their high efficient work. Even high profiles like Prince Charles who during his last visit to India has taken some time from his busy itinerary and personally met these people and also invited a few of them for his marriage thereafter.

The principles of management are best learnt outside the classroom, said a bunch of first-year management students from the National Institute of Industrial Engineering (NITIE), Mumbai, after spending one morning trailing Mumbai’s fleet of dabbawallahs (Lunch box carrying men) across the city.

Seventy NITIE students met seven dabbawallahs at Andheri station and watched them sort their tiffin boxes, after which the students traveled with them to Churchgate (last suburban railway station at the southern end of Mumbai city where bulk of the offices are located). Ten students got into the luggage compartment with the dabbawallahs (Ds).

We understood how hard life was for them and what a struggle it was entering the luggage compartment, pushing and shoving through the crowd with a 70-kg load on their head, said one of the NITIE students who accompanied the dabbawallahs. Once they arrived at Churchgate, the youngsters tried too understand the coding system with which the dabbawallas operated. None of tiffin boxes has a name or address on it. The dabbawallahs figure out whom to send it to with the help of a complex code made of letters, numbers and colors.

From Churchgate, groups of students accompanied each dabbawallah on his rounds and even visited the clients, all of whom showered praises on the dabbawallahs. At one home they visited, a woman said every time her husband left his spectacles or mobile phone at home, she sends it to his office with dabbawallah, along with the lunch-box.

The students hoped to get some hands-on experience in a number of management principles, right from human resources and consumer behavior to market research and quality management. They found the efficiency with which dabbawallahs in Mumbai managed to complete close to 2 lakh transactions in a day mind-boggling. The students are also researching ways in which to help dabbawallahs in Mumbai increase efficiency and improve their monthly incomes as well as to improve their working conditions. Currently, each dabbawalla earns only Rs. 4,500 a month despite working continuously from 8am to 7 pm.

In order to learn how to swim, one needs to get inside the water. Ergonomics deals with the study of human beings and their work to suit the work to the people and not vice-versa. The subject was taught to the students in theory but they experienced it first-hand with the dabbawallahs. The aim of the project is to improve the way dabbawallahs carry their load. Some said they had leg as well as shoulder pains.

President of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association, is glad that the NITIE students want to learn management from his taskforce. He is enthusiastic about his task force work and declares what the management students have been studying in textbooks, his team has been practicing for 125 years.
Just about everybody who has heard of them has been amazed at how the dabbawalas of Mumbai weave their way through the dense traffic, crowded railway stations and streets to be right on time every time.

The students noticed that the dabbawalas had no clue about jargon such as the Just-in-Time management system or Six Sigma, but have their own set of codes, which were just as effective, if not more, in accomplishing the given task.

They realized that the dabbawalas’ unflagging motivation came from each one having a stake in the business.

Ds and NITIE students both agreed it was a day well spent. President of Ds Association said they are proud to be associated with a management institute of NITIE’s stature and the recognition they (Ds) get from academicians and students goes a long way in reinforcing their belief in their system.