What Harvard learned by studying India's lunchbox delivery system

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Marco Werman: Finally today, have you seen the movie from India called "The Lunchbox"? Great story, I strongly recommend it. It all turns around the culture of dabbawallahs. These are guys who deliver hot lunches to people at work all over Mumbai. But in the film, one lunch keeps getting delivered to the wrong man. The woman making the meal confronts the dabbawallah. "Impossible," says the dabbawallah. "We never make a mistake. Even Harvard has studied us," he says. Well, Stefan Thomke is a professor at the Harvard Business School who studied the dabbawallahs. Stefan Thomke: A "dabba" is the actual lunchbox and a "wallah" is the person who handles the box, that's why "dabbawallah." Werman: The background to this system goes back to the 19th century, I read. Why did it start? Thomke: It started out with a basic need and that is people wanted to have home cooked food and they wanted to have it delivered to their work. This system, as I said, is over 100 years old and it basically kind of grew and today, when you look at it, they have something like a quarter of a million transactions per day with about 5,000 people essentially running around and using bicycles and carts all over the city of Mumbai. I don't know if you've been to Mumbai but it's, to put it mildly, a very, very chaotic place. So it's quite amazing that they pull all of this off and make basically no mistakes. What's even more interesting is they do it at extremely low cost. Werman: How much do they charge their customers? Thomke: It varies, it depends on where you live. But today, the typical customer would pay somewhere between 400-500 Indian rupees, and a dollar is about 60 to 65 rupees or so, so this is a really low cost. Werman: And they pay that per month? Thomke: Per month, yes. Werman: No documents, no records that dabbawallahs keep to know which lunchbox goes to whom? Thomke: It's in their heads. Werman: No way. Thomke: Yes. I had the same reaction when I first saw this. I've been going to India for nearly 28 years now so I used to see these guys on the street all the time and I never really thought much of it until one final day, which was in 2008, I was in a hotel room and I picked up a leaflet. The leaflet described it in a few paragraphs and it created a puzzle in my mind because how can they pull this off? So many people, semi-literate workforce, really low cost, extremely high quality and they don't seem to be doing any of the things that we teach. Werman: What is their secret? What did you find out? How did they pull this off with such great efficiency? Thomke: The secret is the system. Let me give an example. The system works because of the way their railway system is structured. It helps them in an unexpected way. It synchronizes the system because in Mumbai, the railway system is one of the few things that actually always runs on time. It forces the entire organization to run according to a rhythm. Werman: So the dependency on the transportation kind of keeps everybody honest? Thomke: Exactly. So it's the rhythm and the synchronization that the railway system gives you in addition to the transportation. So there's a lot of things like that. The labeling is another great story. They have very little information on the boxes. For example, there's no return addresses. But there's different boxes that have to go back to the person who gave them to you. Werman: How do they know where to take them? Thomke: It's in their heads. It comes back to the information that's on there, it gets them back to the last distribution point and then from the last distribution point it's all about memory and they bring it back. Werman: In the movie "The Lunchbox," all these dabbawallahs seem to be almost identical. They're all in white, they all have these little white caps. Thomke: Gandhi cap. Werman: It's a Gandhi cap? So who are these guys? Thomke: Most of them are coming from a particular region of India, that's where they're typically recruited. Interestingly, they're not employees. They're all partners. When you're joining the dabbawallahs, you actually have to buy yourself into it. You have to be a "shareholder," and you basically participate in the profits that come out of it and they make a decent living. Werman: Stefan Thomke, he's a professor at the Harvard Business School where he did a case study of the dabbawallah system in Mumbai. Thanks for coming in, Stefan. Thomke: Thank you for having me. Werman: Now to find a way to get a hot homemade Indian lunch delivered here. From our studios at WGBH, I'm Marco Werman. Thanks for tuning in.