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February 2, 2007 1:50 AM   Subscribe

Everyone’s got one. From the boys and girls who go to school, to the working women and men of India, who depend on the Dabba Wallahs to bring them their meals. The margin of error for these tiffin carriers has been clocked at an astonishing 99.9999999%, which has earned them the Sigma 6 rating, and has made them popular in other parts of the world.
posted by hadjiboy (67 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
Holy crap. Fascinating.

But why don't they just bring their lunch with them?
posted by loquacious at 2:03 AM on February 2, 2007


Quite a few business schools have done work on how a largely illiterate supply chain can achieve results that shame most western companies. See also the the Dhobi Ghats (Mumbia municipal laundry).
posted by rhymer at 2:30 AM on February 2, 2007


loquacious: why eat cold, possibly stale food when you can have it steaming hot straight from your wife's kitchen, its an indian cultural indicate of value. In this context homemade is valued highly over restaurant or "outside" food.
posted by infini at 2:33 AM on February 2, 2007


I caught a documentary clip on these folks a while back.

Mind. Was. Blown.
posted by Cyrano at 2:39 AM on February 2, 2007


In this context homemade is valued highly over restaurant or "outside" food.

That and the poor wife would have to get up before dawn to prepare all those delicious meals.
posted by hadjiboy at 2:45 AM on February 2, 2007


Every time I walk past the Tiffin Bites opposite Liverpool Street, I think to myself, "I know that word -- where is that word from?" but I never remember to look it up when I get home. Thank you for resolving one of the many pressing knots in my mind.
posted by chrismear at 2:46 AM on February 2, 2007


That is astonishing.

I cannot imagine any service in more developed countries having that sort of efficiency. It is hard to imagine anything, anywhere having that sort of efficiency.

Wow.
posted by bh at 2:46 AM on February 2, 2007


Yes, why rely on a business that has no interest in keeping you healthy ? The quality of the food is probably superior (you can put almost anything in mechanically separated meat, who would notice ?) and with a little instructions in correct handling of food (don't use sponges, clean hands, don't refreeze cooked meat et al) the overall is probably better then a restaurant.

Also there is apparently such a wide variety of food/snacks in india that I doubt they die of boredom, certainly don't need mcdonald for variety.

From an economical point of view , it should be noted that this method is possible only thanks to women/man staying at home and cooking and on a class of probably underpaid illiterates, so this service seems to be unexpensive from a financial point of view and it is, but it is not that efficient from an economical point of view : consider the cost of at-home cooking wife/husband and the necessary buildup of financial dependence in most situations (except the born wealthy couples)

The transport method could probably be adapted and production moved to restaurants..but it probably wouldn't work..I mean many restaurants already have 500-1000% profit on each meal..but I doubt that an army of people is living over it..more likely they get a fraction and the lion share is pocketed by few.
posted by elpapacito at 2:53 AM on February 2, 2007


I always thought tiffin was a type of cake. For a moment i imagined thousands of people whose job it was to deliver cake, and i thought "i'd like to live there".
posted by cardamine at 3:21 AM on February 2, 2007 [7 favorites]


hadjiboy: yes, your comment rings true, when my marriage to my ex first started showing signs of trouble my mother asked me if I was making his lunch for him. INteresting cultural valuation.
posted by infini at 3:28 AM on February 2, 2007


I spent about three weeks in Bombay last year and was fascincated by this idea as soon as I noticed it. Being a gregarious country boy I naturally chatted with a few of them.

I had no idea the error rate was so low. Absolutely incredible, and a wonderful profession.
posted by Mutant at 3:45 AM on February 2, 2007


It's incredible how good service can be when you throw manpower at a problem.

Here we'd set it up, then once everyone was taken with the idea, there would be huge layoffs, the service would go to hell as the remaining 40 guys struggled to make it work, lunches would be delayed to a specific 4pm slot "for your convenience", charges would double and I'd end up hungry again.

And we re-route the customer service complaint calls to guys in India, who're getting a top, hot lunch delivered on time.
posted by bonaldi at 4:38 AM on February 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


i really enjoyed the read hadjiboy , thanks for the fine post.
posted by nola at 4:46 AM on February 2, 2007


What an excellent post, hadjiboy - this is most fascinating. Having worked in or with a variety of US corporations ranging from manufacturing to hospitality and witnessed the levels of efficiency, I echo the "astonishing" and "incredible" sentiments.

also, rhymer, thanks for that laundry link, and mutant, your trip blogging looks great!
posted by madamjujujive at 5:02 AM on February 2, 2007


Fantastic stuff! I had no idea. There's an utterly delicious Indian place called "Tiffin" near my house and they have a few examples on display. I had no idea about the system.
posted by frecklefaerie at 5:14 AM on February 2, 2007


Yes the dabbawallas have done India proud, so do the web developers and software programmers in India and so do the INDIAN STEEL companies which are buying out other STEEL companies around the world.. Kudos ..Keep it up.. Great going !
posted by chrisranjana.com at 5:26 AM on February 2, 2007


Hadjiboy, I just want to say that I love your India-centric posts, every damn time.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 5:39 AM on February 2, 2007


Awesome post. India is an endlessly fascinating country.
posted by octothorpe at 6:24 AM on February 2, 2007


Fascinating post indeed. Also, according to the wikipedia article:

The word "Dabbawala" can be translated as "box-carrier" or "lunchpail-man". In Marathi and Hindi, "dabba" means a box (usually a cylindrical aluminium container), while "wala" means someone in a trade involving the object mentioned in the preceding term, e.g. punkhawala with "pankha" which means a fan and "wala" mean the person who owns the pankha (The one with the fan).

Punkhawala would be a great name for a band.
posted by micayetoca at 6:32 AM on February 2, 2007


No matter that few Dabba Wallahs can read or write, they interpret a series of colour coded dots, dashes and crosses on the lids of the lunch containers, indicating the area, street, building and floor of the Dabba’s final destination.

Sounds like reading to me. I wonder if they could translate newspapers or books in the Dabba Wallah "language"? Or is it completely restricted to geographical signifiers? Fascinating, at any rate.
posted by rkent at 6:41 AM on February 2, 2007


I love how there are entire industries out there that I never even knew existed, and I love learning about them even more. How many dabba-wallahs are going for their Green Belt? Great post.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:53 AM on February 2, 2007


Wonderful, wonderful post.
posted by docpops at 6:58 AM on February 2, 2007


In some places, they even bring the bringers.
posted by breezeway at 7:06 AM on February 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Great post, thanks hadjiboy!
posted by amyms at 7:07 AM on February 2, 2007


The margin of error for these tiffin carriers has been clocked at an astonishing 99.9999999%, which has earned them the Sigma 6 rating

That's six sigma, not sigma six, and it requires 99.9997% accuracy (3.4 errors in one million), not 99.9999999%, which would be like 10 sigma, just one error in one billion.

Also, I find the idea that the error rate is either one in one billion or 3.4 in one million absurd. They claim that the error rate is that low, but what's the evidence? I mean these guys never trip? In order to measure the error rate, each package would need to be audited, and records of every transaction would need to be stored in a database somewhere (or on millions (or billions) of sheets of paper).

It reeks of consultants and business porn types making up absurd bullshit in order to sell services to business.
posted by delmoi at 7:14 AM on February 2, 2007


Also, I find the idea that the error rate is either one in one billion or 3.4 in one million absurd.

Yeah, who are we calling illiterate here? Only the numerically illiterate could believe this value is remotely achievable in the real world of physical bodies moving physical things anywhere. Interesting post from a cultural perspective though.
posted by scheptech at 7:51 AM on February 2, 2007


infini: There's a rather interesting comment in this interview via with the head of the dabba-wallah association:
When did you realize that home cooked food is also a brand and maybe a stronger one than even a McDonalds or a Pizza Hut?

Till one is 25-30 years old, you can eat anywhere, but after that home cooked food is what suits the the stomach and health. Our clients now send water along with their tiffins.Till one is 25-30 years old, you can eat anywhere, but after that home cooked food is what suits the the stomach and health. Our clients now send water along with their tiffins.
Being much less than 30 years old, and being one of those people who eats 'anywhere' during a working lunch, I was amused no end when I read this. There is possibly a health-related thing here, surely rotis and daal are healthier than, say, a McD's meal, but to say home-cooked food is what suits the _stomach_ (meaning, what one prefers) is stretching things a bit too much, I think. Won't people get bored? I sure will; I'm all about multiple cuisines and choices, when it comes to food.

And oh, bang on about stay-at-home spouses, or the lack of it thereof. Was wondering about it myself; surely, with evolving workforce participation rates and all that, they'd have a problem keeping this up? I mean, it's not just about being progressive out here; I know for a fact that in many families _across_ the income spectrum, both spouses are finding it necessary to have a salary to sustain themselves.
posted by the cydonian at 8:01 AM on February 2, 2007


Boy that made me hungry.

*scowls accusingly at tuna fish sandwich*
posted by Mister_A at 8:06 AM on February 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


hadjiboy - That and the poor wife would have to get up before dawn to prepare all those delicious meals.

I've had a couple of Japanese coworkers who's wives would get up really early to prepare their bento lunchboxes for them.
posted by porpoise at 8:19 AM on February 2, 2007


Fascinating stuff. Thank you for this!
posted by rmm at 8:23 AM on February 2, 2007


More about the process, with an example of the coding used.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:34 AM on February 2, 2007


This was great! Thanks hadjiboy!
posted by debralee at 8:37 AM on February 2, 2007


From one of the links:

The entire system depends on teamwork and meticulous timing. Tiffins are collected from homes between 7.00 am and 9.00 am, and taken to the nearest railway station. At various intermediary stations, they are hauled onto platforms and sorted out for area-wise distribution, so that a single tiffin could change hands three to four times in the course of its daily journey.

At Mumbai's downtown stations, the last link in the chain, a final relay of dabbawalas fan out to the tiffins' destined bellies. Lunch hour over, the whole process moves into reverse and the tiffins return to suburban homes by 6.00 pm.


So, umm, what's the advantage over a worker from leaving home with his own Tiffin?
posted by Space Coyote at 9:02 AM on February 2, 2007


They claim that the error rate is that low, but what's the evidence?

According to Guardian Unlimited, "Forbes awarded the humble dabba-wallahs a 6 Sigma performance rating, a term used in quality assurance if the percentage of correctness is 99.9999999 or more."

I couldn't find any Forbes links validating that.
posted by Bort at 9:47 AM on February 2, 2007


I had no idea such a thing existed. This is why I love Mefi. Thanks hadjiboy. I now have new trivia to confound my coworkers.
posted by quin at 9:50 AM on February 2, 2007


Thanks for this, hadjiboy.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:56 AM on February 2, 2007


Bort, the BBC also quotes Forbes about the six Sigma award. SixSigma Blog.

aww, cardamine, you thought tiffin were cakes. Cute. Kind of a delicate muffin maybe?

Space Coyote, for many Bombay workers it would simply be too inconvenient/messy to carry their tiffin box to and from work. The commute is intense in Bombay.

hadjiboy, honeybun, brilliant post. I love the interesting articles you put together. Neat. So, some additional snippets: The Bombay dabbawallahs now have their own website, MyDabbaWala , ordering one's dabba delivery online with some accidentally hilarious photos (I love the dabbawallah in the marathon); faqs; some more photos and info; the raja of England meets the dabbawallahs; an article on the subject written in Indian English, which includes a couple of photos of this amazing dabbawallah process and another one with economic details. More pictures, including one of an American trying to carry the tiffin load on his head.

Nicely designed tiffin boxes. Bags for the tiffin boxes. Colonial tiffin. Hindu lunchboxes. A tiffin box store in India. Japanese tiffin boxes (bento boxes). Chinese tiffin box. Where one can buy a tiffin box in NYC for 15 to 20 bucks, Spice Corner. The Hercules or Hero bicycles used by dabbawallahs.
posted by nickyskye at 10:03 AM on February 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


Am I the only person who can't read the first sentence of this post without thinking "But Stacy Brown got two"? Probably, yes.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:10 AM on February 2, 2007


And what a process it is -- despite the complexity, the 5,000 tiffinwallahs make a mistake only about once every two months, according to Ragunath Medge, 42, president of the Mumbai Tiffinmen's Association.

That's one error in every 8 million deliveries, or 16 million if you include the return trip.
Forbes article, "Fast Food," from 1998.
posted by zennie at 10:31 AM on February 2, 2007


This really is awesome. Go bike dudes!
posted by Mister_A at 10:33 AM on February 2, 2007


It entertains me to think about how other cultures might accomplish the same task.

Canada would somehow power it with apologies.

America would either make it illegal due to McDonald’s lobbying or it would be an amendment right to drive 200mph firing a machine gun out the passage window when lunch delivery is involved.

England would create a state system that got your lunch, three days late but carbon neutral. Many forms would be involved and it would be run by someone who seriously expects to be referred to as ‘Lord’.

The Dutch wouldn’t bother with all this madness.

The French would refuse to bother with all this madness. Besides, their wife is a horrible cook.

German’s would standardize the box, the food and the wife. As long as everything conformed to these standards you’d have your lunch at 12:00 on the dot, otherwise, you go to jail.

In Japan it would involve singing and robots, possibly transformers.

The Swedes would use a lot of committees, subsidize everything and offer job training, but despite all that you’d still get lunch.

Cuba would do the same, but you don’t actually get the lunch.

In Russia lunch delivers you. Or is stolen by state authority/mafia.

I don’t know how the Chinese would do it, but eventually they’d do the hell out of it.
posted by Leonard at 10:52 AM on February 2, 2007 [9 favorites]


There was a fantastic article about them in Eye, a graphic design magazine. The writers proposed taking the symbol system the dabbawallas had developed and formalizing it into real signage for the train stations.

Unfortunately, the eye website misses the point by leaving out the pictures.
posted by O9scar at 10:52 AM on February 2, 2007


The dabbawalla's pool together their earnings to buy a significant gift for Prince Charles when he married Camilla. Go figure!
posted by infini at 10:56 AM on February 2, 2007


Suddenly "Aye say old boy, fancy a spot of tiffin, what what?" becomes clear.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 11:01 AM on February 2, 2007


(From the wiki link in the FPP): "According to a recent survey, there is only one mistake in every 6,000,000 deliveries."

Oh man, that poor guy. :\ Imagine being THE ONLY GUY TO MAKE THE SINGLE MISTAKE THAT EVER OCCURRED.
posted by parilous at 11:05 AM on February 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


I love this post! But now I am seriously in need of a masala dosa and a cup of sambar. Sadly, there is no decent South Indian food with 10 miles, nor are there any tiffin-wallahs in my neck of the woods.
posted by Fennel B. at 11:52 AM on February 2, 2007


Excellent, nickyskye just found for me the lunchbox I'll be buying my daughter when she reaches school age. These are awesome.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:56 AM on February 2, 2007


Great post!

I recall first learning about the dabbawallas in a New Yorker magazine article a few years ago. [I've searched their online archive and can't locate it.]
posted by ericb at 12:13 PM on February 2, 2007


Very weird; apparently the MBA types have really latched onto this. The wikipedia article is all business analysis, which doesn't necessarily seem appropriate.

Plus, the numbers are all over the place. 99.9999999% accuracy is clearly absurd. It would mean there was one missed delivery every 14 years or so. How could you ever reliably audit or even survey that? One in six million (one mistake a month) is more like 99.99998%, but I'm not sure how you'd do an accurate survey that would produce that number either, unless you were running it over a period of a couple of years. As delmoi pointed out, there clearly aren't the auditing tools in place to produce this kind of precision. This smells like biz school groupthink.

That said, I love the cultural aspects of this post. I'm also curious about the question that's been asked a couple of times: why not just carry your meal? As Space Coyote pointed out, there are no time savings, since pick-up is first thing in the morning. I've heard that crowded commuter rail in Mumbai makes it difficult to carry stuff to work. Is why you need dabbawallas?
posted by mr_roboto at 1:10 PM on February 2, 2007


Another post that exemplifies why I love Metafilter.

Now I can pretend to be a smarty pants like I knew all about this all along.

Great post.
posted by tkchrist at 1:17 PM on February 2, 2007


So, umm, what's the advantage over a worker from leaving home with his own Tiffin?
Lots of people get jobs? It's like when I was travelling on the Indian Railways (world's biggest employer), and saw a track-side sign being repainted.

White sign, about A4 size.
Contents: Large number 8.
Workers: 3. One holding sign, one painting, one standing watching.
posted by bonaldi at 1:43 PM on February 2, 2007


mr_roboto: I've heard that crowded commuter rail in Mumbai makes it difficult to carry stuff to work. Is why you need dabbawallas?

In a nutshell, yes.
posted by Gyan at 2:01 PM on February 2, 2007


But why don't they just bring their lunch with them?

Because of caste discrimination. It's considered unclean for certain people to prepare your food. Like ingenious Japanese robots that exist because they don't want foreigners touching their old people, this is a charming, smart, highly organized way to maintain systemic discrimination. The unstated reason middle and upper class Indians dislike "outside food" is that there's no telling whose ritually unclean Scheduled Class hands have touched it.
posted by mobunited at 2:04 PM on February 2, 2007


mobunited: The unstated reason middle and upper class Indians dislike "outside food" is that there's no telling whose ritually unclean Scheduled Class hands have touched it

This is not a major factor for the folks I know.
posted by Gyan at 2:28 PM on February 2, 2007


I learned about this recently on Anthony Bourdain's show. Amazing. Thanks, hadjiboy (and nickyskye).
posted by homunculus at 2:36 PM on February 2, 2007


The tradition, if not the lunchbox, has migrated to Silicon Valley.
posted by IcyJuly at 2:37 PM on February 2, 2007


The unstated reason middle and upper class Indians dislike "outside food" is that there's no telling whose ritually unclean Scheduled Class hands have touched it.

When your a westerner in countries that have cultural traditions like this it's hard not to freak out a bit.

I remember my dad telling stories about how my mom, when they were first stationed in Vietnam in the early sixties, was expected to hire all these locals for household staff. Like ten people. They lived in a large old French Colonial villa - part of a plantation.

My mom is from a small town in Idaho and the idea of having "servants" was appalling. She assumed it was condescending. Plus she didn't want other people doing HER work as fifties house wife and officers wife.

Talk about a misread of the situation.

She ended up causing a whole lot of trouble. The local white lady wasn't spreading the wealth. Pretty soon shops would not sell things to her. My dads Vietnamese counterparts thought he was losing face and couldn't control his wife and they started fucking around at work. Eventually the MAYOR of the town got on my dads case about it.

So she agreed to hire a cook. A cleaner. A gardener (there was nothing but cactus to garden.) A nanny. A driver. And two body guards. Who were most certainly Viet Cong, but they would be LESS trouble hired than not.

Anyway. The deal was they were hired but she did all the work. This made everybody happy but my father.
posted by tkchrist at 3:21 PM on February 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


I learned about this recently on Anthony Bourdain's show.

Here's the clip (starting at 2:14).
posted by ericb at 3:51 PM on February 2, 2007


Not carrying things is also a sign of status. As is carrying things for others, come to think of it, albeit a sign of low status.

It isn't necessarily caste, although that can play in to it. Nothing is that simple.

I carried my own tiffin to college, and there is nothing like some nice home cooked food between Hindi films...erm...classes.
posted by QIbHom at 8:28 PM on February 2, 2007


Indian food, be it southern or northern, is delicious and creates a sort of culinary-lust deep within.

I wish we had abundant cheap labour, a la tkcrhist.
posted by oxford blue at 8:43 PM on February 2, 2007


This is not a major factor for the folks I know.

People with lawn jockeys don't necessarily wish they had slaves, either, but that doesn't make the subtext go away. The idea that "outside food" is dirty sure doesn't come from the relative status of carrying and not carrying things. I'm not saying that this is the result of consciously organized discrimination at all and that parallels don't exist elsewhere.

Of course, sometimes it is conscious, too.

As for Vietnamese noblesse oblige, that arrangement would indeed be perfectly natural when you're representing an invading colonial power. Of course, the phrase "invading colonial power" tells you what's wrong long before the business of servants even comes into it, doesn't it?
posted by mobunited at 9:15 PM on February 2, 2007


NickySkye—thank you once again for the help. I forgot how odd this might look to a foreigner, and should have supplied all of those additional links that you’ve compiled.
Thanks again!

posted by hadjiboy at 12:24 AM on February 3, 2007


Hadjiboy, Please accept my apology if my links caused you think your post is anything other than marvelous on its own, no additional fluff links of mine needed.

zennie was a genius locating the impossible-to-find Forbes article. Everybody's links and comments added some interesting food-for-thought aspect.

My 2 cents about "outside food" in India is that Indians are particularly fussy about their food for any number of reasons. Most Indians take their food choices seriously. For carnivores who are Muslim, the meat needs to be "halal". There are the strict Indian vegetarians and Bombay has people of many ethnicities who like their own Portuguese style Goan, Zoroastrian, Indian-Jewish and other regional cuisine preferences.

Food production and storage in India isn't so standardised the way it is in the West and I think many Indians want to know their family or people they know and trust made their food for reasons of confidence that the meal is not just economical but also wholesome and fresh.
posted by nickyskye at 9:34 AM on February 3, 2007


Before looking into internal disputes, the association charges a token Rs 100 to ensure that only genuinely aggrieved members interested in a solution come to it with their problems, and the officials' time is not wasted on petty bickering.

matthowie are you paying attention here?
posted by JujuB at 10:51 PM on February 3, 2007


Thanks for the cool quote from that excellent article about the dabbawallahs JujuB.
posted by nickyskye at 7:42 AM on February 4, 2007


But why don't they just bring their lunch with them?
Because of caste discrimination. It's considered unclean for certain people to prepare your food.

mobunited: I am curious about how you reached that conclusion. Most people I know in Mumbai use the delivery service because of its convenience.* Also, how would "certain people" touch their food if they brought their lunch with them?

I would disagree with your assertion that middle and upper-class Indians dislike outside food. In my experience, I find that statement to be especially untrue in Mumbai.

* for reasons listed by hadjiboy and Gyan. It would be an interesting experience to travel on the crowded Western line with hot food in your bag.
posted by aflatoon at 11:47 AM on February 4, 2007


Ok despite all the fawning and ooh-aahing in this thread, unless I am missing something, this is a lunchbox delivery service, right?

I mean, the man leaves for work, a little bit after, another man arrives at his house, picks up his lunchbox, and brings it to his workplace a little bit after.

The only fascinating thing about this is how incredibly wasteful and INEFFICIENT it is, and that it even exists at all.

I wonder if the real story here isn't the attention the wife gets i.e. the old stories of the "milkman" in England and America.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:40 PM on February 8, 2007


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