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ZERO Capital to SIX Sigma to Creating Business Managers at Harvard – A Case Study of Dabbawalas

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/1/2010

Do you really need Six Sigma study material to achieve the highly sought certification? The case study of Dabbawalas says NO to the question. Read on to see how a group with more than 85 percent illiterate staff, got Six Sigma without any formal training and without usage of modern technology.

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    They Never Required Six Sigma Study Material - An Introduction to the Dabbawalas

    Forget Six Sigma study material, more than 85 percent of the Dabbawalas did not even study at O Level. Still, they exist as a good example for every business and business management schools.

    The Dabbawalas are featured in the "Guinness Book of World Records" and also figure in Ripley’s "Believe It or Not". Even Prince Charles invited them to his wedding owing to the highly positive impression he got on Dabbawalas during his trip to India. He had to make an appointment to meet these people so as to fit into their daily schedule!

    The Dabbawalas have been so successful without any Six Sigma study material that many top schools such as Harvard Business School and companies including Microsoft, NSE, RBI, Accenture, and SAP invite these poorly educated employees to speak on the business management process! Many business institutes across the world include the case-study as part of their curriculum.

    In fact, you could say that the Dabbawalas case study is part of Six Sigma study material.

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    Mumbai Dabbawalas - An Introduction

    Dabbawalas In Corporate Seminars 

    The Dabbawala business was founded by Mahadeo Havaji Bacche who inaugurated “The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust" with a handful of illiterate employees and without any capital investment. "Tiffin" was a nostalgic term used by British for "light food". However, people call them Dabbawalas as they carry a "Dabba" meaning "box". Almost 5000 Dabbawalas deliver and collect more than 200,000 lunch boxes very day, across the entire Mumbai (India).

    The most interesting fact is that these people do not use any modern technology, yet they have never failed to deliver the lunch boxes on time - irrespective of weather, riots, floods, etc. – with an error coefficient of one in 16,000,000 boxes. This is more than Six Sigma - a quality that most businesses strive to achieve.

    A study conducted by Six Sigma concludes that excellent efficiency and reliability is achieved by the Dabbawalas through competitive collaboration with team members and efficient management of logistics.

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    The Mumbai Dabbawalas – Method of Working at a Glance

    DabbaWala Transportation Mode The Dabbawalas depend on teamwork and timing to complete their tasks. Once the customer leaves for his/her office, the lunch is packed in a box that is color coded (provided by the Dabbawalas) by the customer's home-maker. This process should be completed by 9am. Once the lunch box is packed, it is transported using a combination of different transport modes: bicycles, local trains, and walking. The boxes are handed over to other team workers at different junctions. The entire city is divided into several areas, each area having a specific "box exchange point". A single lunch box changes hands three to four times in its journey to office and back home.

    The organizational structure of Dabbawalas is also simple. Each employee is a shareholder and an entrepreneur. The organization follows a flat structure of business hierarchy with only three layers for better communication. Other than top level management, the middle layer is the governing body while the bottom layer contains people involved in transportation of lunch boxes.

    The Dabbawalas are divided into groups of 15 to 25 and each group is supervised by 4 experienced supervisors. These supervisors are familiar with the color coding that is used in the complex logistic process. Their role is to sort the lunch boxes, maintain receipts and payments, acquire new customers, solve disputes, and train junior employees.

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    Management of Dabbawalas does not Rely on Six Sigma Study Material

    As mentioned earlier, above 85 percent of Dabbawalas' team did not even study the O level, let alone the Six Sigma study material. They function on strict management principles. Their (basic) practices are listed here:

    1. Their main beliefs are: work is worship, customer is God, time is money, and unity is power.
    2. They must wear their uniform, must report on time, must respect customers and always carry identification cards.
    3. Decisions are made instantly without meetings and conventions.

    This case offers various lessons on controlling complex processes efficiently with a small error rate. Even in this technology driven world, the Dabbawalas are rendering an excellent service with the help of a brilliant supply chain.

    Having gone through the case study, you must have been convinced that it is dedication and instant decision making skills that are required to achieve Six Sigma. You do not really need any Six Sigma study material to achieve the level!

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