Dabbawala Case Study – Term Paper

DABBAWALA: The Organization and Emerge of a Food Distribution System


This paper examined the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, commonly known as the dabbawala, and how their practices while making them efficient, constrain their growth. As health awareness in India increases in the wake of multiple obesity surveys, there is a growing market for healthier alternatives, which represents potential expansion opportunities for the dabbawala, especially in the fast-growing cities. This study mainly utilized secondary sources of data collection to conduct a case study on the dabbawalas. Due to the qualitative nature of previous studies, and the lack of quantitative studies on the organization, I utilized a case study methodology to review the current body of knowledge available on the dabbawalas. The findings revealed that the dabbawala’s principles of community hiring and maintaining their core organizational objective have enabled them to achieve six-sigma service delivery. However, the organization’s aversion towards technology has constrained their growth potential since they cannot interact with the younger generations whose main form of communication is social media. Therefore, after a comparison with a leading competitor, McDonalds India, where a SWOT analysis reveals the major weaknesses of the dabbawala, the study recommends that the dabbawala should change their managerial attitude towards technology, which would aid in marketing their organization and expanding to other cities where their services are in great demand. Adoption of technology in the organization would help in reducing their marketing costs while increasing exposure, tracking sales and inquiries, and collecting statistics on the profitability of particular lines. Such measures would help the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association to grow to other cities thus increasing employment, profitability, and providing a sustainable solution for the rising health concerns.

Dabbawala Harvard Case Study

Definition of Important Terms

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Dabbawala- A person in India whose work is to collect and deliver lunchboxes from the homes to offices (Thomke et al., 2012)

Dabba- The aluminum or tin box that the dabbawalas use to ferry food for their clients (Thomke et al., 2012)

Organizational Structure – Mintzberg et al. (1979) posit that the organizational structure determines how people’s jobs are organized and divided in an organization. Greenberg and Baron et al. (2011) define the organizational structure as the formal arrangement between the individuals and groups in an enterprise in regards to the allocation of tasks, responsibilities, and authority.

Supply Chain Model – a supply chain model is an organization of people, information, activities, and resources that aid in moving a product or service from the supplier to consumer (Christopher et al., 2016).

Logistics Efficiency – it refers to how effective business operations are. Logistics usually refers to the movement of information or physical goods from one location to another. Therefore, logistics efficiency refers to how well a business can keep track of their shipments and move products fast to the correct locations (Fugate et al., 2010, p.44).

Food Systems – Food systems are collaborative networks that facilitate sustainable food    production, distribution, and waste management to enhance the social, economic, and environmental welfare of a specific place.

Organizational change – Organizational change involves the review and modification of managerial structure and business processes (Benn et al., 2014). Change is essential especially for organizations looking to grow or compete against bigger competitors.

Hybrid Organizations – Hybrid organizational structures are unique in combining elements from various spheres of society such as the private and public sector. For example, they may combine the social elements of a non-profit organizational and the commercial logic of profit-oriented institutions (Menard et al., 2004).


Dabbawala History

1.1 Introduction

This report is a study of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (MTBSA), commonly known as the Dabbawala and their organizational practices. Unlike earlier work on this subject, which has solely focused on the success factors of the MTBSA and how they can be adapted for other organizations, here we focus on how they can change their organizational practices to aid in their growth. Prior studies on the topic have concluded that the main competitive advantage that the dabbawala have over competitors is the Mumbai Railway. Baindur & Macario’s (2013) study on Mumbai urban logistics shows that Mumbai has the most extensive railway system of any city in India. The two zonal railways extending eastwards to Karjat and North Eastwards to Kasara provide a reliable and low-cost option to move from one end of the city to the other. Using data collected from a comprehensive review of available literature on the research subject, first, I will explore the aspects that have enabled the long-term quality of service provided by the Dabbawala describing their organizational culture and practices. Second, I will consider how their organizational practices hinder organizational change and growth and thirdly, through a comparison with a leading competitor, McDonalds India, I consider how the MTBSA can utilize technology to facilitate their expansion to other regions.

In this introductory chapter, I explain how my interest in researching the MTBSA developed; place the research in its institutional context, and outline a brief overview of the analytical framework, which the research draws from.

 1.2 Background

Recently in Asia, Kerala, an Indian state with a newly elected communist government, implemented a 14.5% fat tax on junk food such as burgers served in branded restaurants like Burger King, and McDonalds (Menon et al., 2016). The Kerala government says this move is an effort to curb the rising obesity figures in the state as it has the second highest number of obese people second only to the state of Punjab. The fat tax has been in existence in European countries such as Hungary and Denmark and aims to improve people’s choices regarding their food. The new regulation in the Indian state of Kerala comes on after several qualitative health surveys including those by Pradeepa et al (2015) and Ng. et al (2014) revealed India as one of the countries with the highest obesity figures associated with increased affluence of the middle class. Pradeepa et al. (2015) conducted a population survey on the issue revealing a high prevalence of abdominal, generalized, and combined obesity in both rural and urban Indian households. These results also confirm those of Ng et al. (2014) who concluded that Indian women are more likely to become obese as compared to their male counterparts. Ng et al. (2014) also found that India had 20 million obese women in 2014 as compared with 9.8 million men. These are clearly alarming statistics on obesity which has been linked with multiple diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and breathing disorders thus necessitating a sustainable alternative to fast food consumption.

The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association is a food delivery service in the major cities of India mainly Mumbai. The MTBSA, hereafter referred to as the Dabbawala organization, has existed for over 125 years in Mumbai leading to a highly specialized supply chain. The Dabbawalas carry and deliver fresh food from a client’s home in a lunch box (dabba) which is then delivered to the client’s offices in the city (Roncaglia et al., 2013). While it may sound like a simple job, it is one of the most specialized and efficient logistics and supply chain management systems with over 5000 employees delivering more than 200,000 lunch boxes every day (Baindur et al., 2013). They then collect the empty lunch boxes in the afternoon and return them to the owner’s residence. Since its inception in 1890, the Dabbawala system has gained legendary status due to its reliability in both good and bad times. The organization has endured through Hindu-Muslim riots, wars, famines, monsoons, and several terrorist attacks with workers delivering impeccable service. The Dabbawala service is an excellent case study for food systems as it provides a synergy between the local culture and their business objectives. The organization mainly employs semi-literate people from the Warkari sect of rural Maharashtra, which helps in building a sense of community and society among their employees (Pathak et al., 2010). The Dabbawala system relies heavily on the public Mumbai rail system and bicycles. These factors have led to their long-term success and reliability since it reduces transport costs and reliance on technology.

The Dabbawala have mainly capitalized on the Indian cultural preferences of having freshly prepared food. Additionally, it facilitates easier catering to the varied cuisines and tastes of all of India’s different cultures (Thomke et al., 2010). Therefore, the use of the Dabbawalas represents a cost-effective solution to this problem when going to work in the cities as they simply deliver food from the worker’s home. Delivery of home cooked food is also an option for those with health concerns as their wives can prepare healthier foods as compared to fast food options. Therefore, the Dabbawalas provide a much-needed service to the residents of Mumbai at a fraction of the cost of alternatives. Additionally, lately, there have been concerns among the Indian population on the increasing obesity rates as shown by the recent fat tax. All of these factors have provided increased opportunities for the Dabbawala as people look for fast food alternatives in their daily lives. However, the current MTBSA organizational practices hinder them from taking full advantage of emerging business opportunities.