India’s dabbawalas: Low-tech role models for business

Inspiration for managers can come from unlikely places -- including members of a meal-delivery collective in Mumbai, India known as dabbawalas. The Economist reports how management gurus have become increasingly impressed with the dabbawalas' ability to deliver more than 170,000 meals to individuals each day  -- with a very low error rate, despite a low-tech delivery system.  Among much other recognition, Paul Goodman, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon's Tepper School of Business, has produced a documentary about dabbawalas , and Harvard Business School has published a case about them. Factors that have been cited as key to the dabbawalas' success range from a team-based organizational structure, an effective logistics system using color coding, an emphasis on careful time management -- and the use of Mumbai's reliable suburban rail system.

Another unusual aspect of the dabbawala management system: the organization advertises that it will help other companies recruit its employees to better jobs -- but every departing dabbawala is committed to finding a replacement before leaving. For more on the idea that smart organizations may sometimes take a non-adversarial approach to employee departures, see the article "Rethinking the 'War for Talent'" in the Summer 2008 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.  While  "Rethinking the 'War for Talent'" doesn't mention dabbawalas, the article's authors note that there are situations where it may be beneficial to organizations to help a junior employee find a job with a complementary firm.