Arts, Culture & Media

What Harvard learned by studying India's lunchbox delivery system

If you haven't seen the Indian film The Lunchbox, by writer and director Ritesh Batra, you should.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

It's billed as a romantic comedy but I found it to be much more; a movie about love, yes, but also about loss and aging. It hit all the right buttons without getting overly schmaltzy or saccharine. In fact, it's anything but. 

The movie, as the title suggests, centers around a lunchbox. In Mumbai there's a "dabbawallah system" of delivering hot, home-cooked lunches to workers in their offices around the city. The dabbawallahs who deliver the lunches are extremely efficient, delivering up to 250,000 lunches each day and barely ever making a mistake.

The film, however, is about a glitch. One lunch keeps getting delivered to the wrong man. But when the woman making the meal confronts the dabbawallah he shakes his head and tells her it’s impossible.  They never make mistakes, even Harvard came to study the delivery system, he tells her.

It’s true that they hardly make mistakes, says Stefan Thomke, the Harvard Business School professor who did that study.

So, what is their secret?

“Their secret is the system,” says Thomke. This system is a very complicated dance of many, many elements, including the railway system in Mumbai. The dabbawallah rely on the train to deliver the lunchboxes around the city.

“[The railway] sort of helps them in unexpected ways. It synchronizes the system because in Mumbai the railway is one of the few things that always runs on time. It forces the entire organization to run according to a rhythm,” he says.

Another example of the perfection of the dabbawallah system is how they label the lunchboxes. There’s very little information on the boxes.

“For example, there’s no return address,” says Thomke, “but these boxes have to go back to the person who gave them to you.”

How do they know where to return the lunchbox? That information is memorized by the dabbawallah, he says.

“The information that’s on there gets [the lunchbox] back to the last distribution point and from the last point, it’s all about memory and they bring it back,” Thomke says.

Despite the fact that the premise of the movie is nearly impossible, Thomke still enjoyed the film.

“I loved the movie because it starts out with something that’s highly improbable, and isn’t that something that life is all about — something that is highly improbable,” he says.

Well, put.

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    Credit: Photo by Michael Simmonds, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

    Irrfan Khan as Saajan

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