The Six Sigma Environmentalists – The Dabbawala’s of Mumbai.By Elsie Gabriel



The Six Sigma Environmentalists – The Dabbawala’s of Mumbai.

By Elsie Gabriel


dabba train floor

“Six Sigma is a quality program that, when all is said and done, improves your customer’s experience, lowers your costs, and builds better leaders.” — Jack Welch

Believe it or not, the humble Dabbawala’s of Mumbai who are mostly semi literate people from the Warkari tribe from rural Maharashtra are a six sigma certified organization, running the lunch box delivery business for over 125 years.

So, what is the Six Sigma you may ask?

The Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools for process improvement. It was introduced by engineer Bill Smith while working at Motorola in 1986. Jack Welch made it central to his business strategy at General Electric in 1995. Today, it is used in many corporate and industrial sectors.

So, how are the Dabbawala’s six sigma environmentalists?

Well, they are in a business which requires them to deliver lunch boxes to over 200,000 people daily with almost zero hiccups, from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, and the Dabbawala’s utilize zero- pollution transportation! Imagine delivering goods without digital technology or electricity involved in the first place, no apps or google maps, nothing. Secondly, they use hand carts made of wood and wheels to carry the dabba’s. Then they cycle most of the distance, yes, cycling forms the core part of their journey. And then for the main lap, use the public transport like the local trains and also use their own physical strength to carry a huge load of almost 70 KGs daily to and fro on their heads! No addition to green house gases, no pollution, nothing!

We are in a present day world, thinking that there must inevitably be a transition to cleaner forms of transportation and to cleaner fuels, hydrogen fuelled, be they bio-based, or electric cars and so on, but here are the Dabbawala’s who have not ‘regressed’ to polluting the air through their business development plans over all these years. They don’t even have elaborate office space or computers to store their logistics or details of their man power, no, strictly simplicity rules above all, making each Dabbawala a stake holder of the business and part of the equal profit making system.

They have stuck to their zero-carbon structure through 125 years, and that’s what makes them the Six Sigma Environmentalists!

dabba arriving

Basically, the Six Sigma seeks to improve the quality of the result of a business process by identifying and removing the causes of defects. Here, the Dabbawala’s use their ancestral business qualities passed on from one generation to another, a set of quality management methods, mainly traditional, coding methods and create a special infrastructure of people within the organization, who are experts in these methods. Each step in their business process is magnified by the essence of a ritual like time management. Not a minute wasted to indulge in frivolous talk or watch life passing by, just sheer focus on the work, simply to deliver a lunch box in time and again collect the empty boxes to be delivered back from where it came.

Their system of work, reduces processing time, reduces pollution, reduces costs, increases customer satisfaction, and increases profits, all from a substantial amount charged for delivery per month.

dabba road elsie


Come, spend a day with me and join the Dabbawala’s as early as nine am every morning, when they collect home cooked meals in special tin round cubical metal boxes on their cycles for delivery to their customers, which after sorting, are loaded onto trolleys and pushed by hand to the nearest railway station. After arriving at the destination, again they follow a coding method of sorting boxes according to their colours, alphabets and markings, sometimes coloured threads and dots are used to categorize.

The boxes are arranged so that lunches going to the same office are indicated by a system of coloured lettering and are collected on the same trolley. They are always delivered precisely to the right destination.

It is said that the Harvard Business School urged their students to learn from the Dabbawala’s who rely on a system which has outlived over 125 years simply on the human resilience.

Today, the Dabbawala’s are an essential ingredient in a tourists experience of Mumbai. So, next time you need an in depth tour of the traditional Dabbawala’s get in touch with me and I will take you through a wonderful journey, an innovative authentic culinary business experience like no other.

Their combination of ingredients which lead to their high quality of work is no Rubik cube solving method either, the equation is simple-it’s simplicity!

dabba station

So make sure you include a day trip with the Dabbawala’s on your Top 10 Mumbai experiences in your itinerary.

It is true, the Mumbai experience would be truly incomplete without a quintessential Dabbawala experience, simply take a walk to the Dadar station and follow me on their specialized trail.

How it all started for them-It all started about 125 years back when a Parsi banker wanted to have home cooked food regularly in office and gave this responsibility to the first ever Dabbawala. It was an informal and individual effort in the beginning, but visionary Mahadeo Havaji Bachche saw the opportunity and started the lunch delivery service in its present team-delivery format with 100 Dabbawalas.

As the city grew, the demand for dabba delivery grew too. Their forefathers had the vision to create the Dabba coding system that’s going on strong even today.

dabba cycle

Says Subhod Sangle of the Dabbawala organization, “We feel a sense of pride that our work and dedication is appreciated the world over. Eminent personalities like Prince Charles have visited us. Richard Branson actually travelled with us the Dabbawala’s and delivered a huge tiffin to his own employees at Virgin, Mumbai. The Dabbawalla on an average carries about 30-40 tiffins on his bicycle, fighting the bad roads, mud, traffic and even Mumbai monsoons. No excuses! But thankfully he is not alone. He reaches the nearest railway station where Dabbawalas from different areas gather. The tiffins are sorted as per their destination according to Dabbawala coding system.He and his teammates pick up tiffin boxes for their assigned destination and transfer them in head crates.There are about 60 tiffin boxes in one head crate.”

dabba subodh explaining

I was filled with inspiration and priceless knowledge as I travelled with the Dabbawala’s from the Dadar collection center, walked with their carts to the station, jumped on to the train with them, only to emerge at the Chruchgate station through all the noise and crowds, with a big smile on my face, all because the Dabbawala does his job with so much ‘cool quotient’.

As I sat on the floor of the train along side one such Dabbawala named Kalluram, all the way to Chruchgate, the train rattling from side to side, the track rhythm juxtapositioned by the cacophony of our conversation, all I heard was he had been working for over 35 years and he never felt better, ‘making people feel happy with their own healthy home cooked food in these modern times of fast food and digital world.’

dabba road elsie

Later, we went to deliver so many lunch boxes at Churchgate and one of them was to a lady called Akshata Shah, at a bank who had her maid cook just the right home cooked recipe she wanted and transported to her by the Dabbawala daily. She was one satisfied customer for sure, she said, “Home cooked meals keep us healthy and satisfied. We use our own ingredients and oil etc to feel comfortable with the meals we eat away from home here at the office. Sometimes my husband cooks as well and it is a good feeling to enjoy home cooked fresh food. I have never had a complaint against the Dabbawala’s they are always precise and work peacefully.”

dabba icici girl

dabba garden

Later, we all ended up post work, eating in the park at the Horniman circle. Bliss! Aleena Ross, who joined us among numerous other University students from the USA was quite facinated with her experience, “It is like no other tour.I appreciate the work they do, they are humble.There are so many challenges here in the city but nothing stops them, I have learnt so much from the Dabbawala’s today.”

There is so much more to share about the Dabbawala’s, join me in my next episode for more, come join me when you can.

This article has 1 comments

  1. Victor Ferns Reply

    Amazing work.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    Much Thanks to the daba wallas.
    Very interesting.
    Cheers & God bless.
    Victor Ferns.

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