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"Error is Horror": The Dabbawallas of Mumbai
December 17, 2009 11:35 AM   Subscribe

Follow that Dabbawalla For nearly 130 years, Mumbai's Dabbawallas have been delivering lunches from customers' homes to their workplaces and taken the empty tiffin boxes back again. The service, with its origins in the mid 1880s when a single textile mill worker paid an errand boy to bring him his lunch from home, is a complex system with in which color coded lunch boxes are passed from Dabbawalla to Dabbawalla to reach their destination, creating a network that, in many ways, resembles the Internet itself.

Despite that resemblance, the service itself is decidedly low-tech (scroll down in that link for "The Logistics of Dabbawalla"). The 5,000 Dabbawallas are divided into autonomous operating groups of 30-35 (including five Dabbawallas who aren't part of the regular supply chain, but are there to pick up slack and reroute stray boxes) whose only points of contact are lunch box handoffs. The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association (as the organization has been formally called since 1968), has embraced the internet as a means of promotion, however. Their website, mydabbawalla.org, invites users to schedule service via SMS and to friend the service on Facebook.

One of the reasons for the success of the system is that it's built on personal relationships: each Dabbawalla (like the one in this New York Times piece) has built up a loyal customer base over the years.
posted by ocherdraco (40 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
yey tiffin
posted by leotrotsky at 11:37 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I asked about the effects of the economic downturn I was told with a smile that “the stomach knows no recession.”

I absolutely love this line.
posted by dnesan at 11:44 AM on December 17, 2009


Reportedly their mistake rate is just 1 in 16 million deliveries, which caused the Forbes Global magazine to award its Six Sigma certification in 2001

That's awesome.
posted by msalt at 11:45 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Previously, by hadjiboy.

Very cool.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:46 AM on December 17, 2009


If only I had someone to cook awesome Indian food to put in my tiffin. A tiffin with a ham sandwich is just... *sigh*.
posted by GuyZero at 11:49 AM on December 17, 2009


GuyZero, a lot of Indian food is amazingly easy (and even fairly quick) to make. You could cook your own to put in a tiffin. Of course, it would be kind of silly to have someone take the food you cooked and deliver it to your work, but, hey, anything for the experience....
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:57 AM on December 17, 2009


This is great.

Does anyone have any particular documentaries (Netflixable preferred) about modern urban life in India?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 12:02 PM on December 17, 2009


This was featured on an episode of 'No Reservations' and I was amazed then, too. So they are Six Sigma super duper black belts? Oh, and our local new Indian restaurant is called Tiffin.
posted by fixedgear at 12:03 PM on December 17, 2009


After hadjiboy's post I hunted down and acquired a tiffin. As GuyZero points out, a tiffin with a ham sandwich lacks that certain something. Also they're metal so they can't be microwaved and the meal quickly cools within the metal shell so that by lunchtime the food is lukewarm at best.

A tiffin without a Dabbawalla is like a day without sun or song.
posted by lekvar at 12:06 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


PDF of dabbawala organization structure, coding and flow
posted by infini at 12:08 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Great post. This is why I love MeFi.
posted by belvidere at 12:09 PM on December 17, 2009


New York City has a tiffin service. We use it, and find the food to be quite good.
http://www.tiffinnewyork.com/
posted by aletheia at 12:12 PM on December 17, 2009


btw, the writer of RandomSpecific blog linked to as "colour coded lunchboxes" aka meanestindian aka Meena Kadri on the flickr link is working on a project right now in Dharavi interviewing people who live on irregular income streams at the base of the pyramid. Here's her latest post on coping strategies with rise in food prices
posted by infini at 12:15 PM on December 17, 2009


Gordon Ramsay used tiffin delivery as a gimmick to announce the relaunching of an indian restaurant on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares (the quality BBC version, not the horrifically dumbed-down US version)... It's great to have a bit more background on exactly what those great little stacked tray lunchpails are all about. Thanks for posting!
posted by hippybear at 12:17 PM on December 17, 2009


Anthony Bourdain [starts at 2:08] on tiffins, etc.
posted by ericb at 12:20 PM on December 17, 2009


New York City has a tiffin service. (aletheia)

Sweet! I searched for one (the New York Times article mentions that they exist here, but doesn't give a name!) but couldn't find it. Thanks!
posted by ocherdraco at 12:26 PM on December 17, 2009


This was featured on an episode of 'No Reservations'...

fixedgear, that's where I first learned of dabbawallas. My previous comment has a link to that episode/clip on YouTube.
posted by ericb at 12:44 PM on December 17, 2009


Hmm. There seem to be a few Canadian tiffin services available. Of course, I can also just cycle down the street and get some roti shells and fill them myself ...
posted by maudlin at 12:52 PM on December 17, 2009


Man those tiffins give me a nerdon. It feels somewhat related to my office supply fetish. I once considered buying a tiffin for my own use but I realised what a ridiculous poseur I would look like.
posted by mattholomew at 1:17 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, as fixedgear calls them, they're "Six Sigma super duper black belts" for real. The Large Aerospace Corporation I work for spends umpty millions of dollars every year trying to get us salarymen to hump it like these boys, and they still blow us away, and make it look easy.

Large Aerospace Corporation looks on, making little fists and grinding its teeth, holding back hot tears of indignation.

Glad to see this post.
posted by sidereal at 1:40 PM on December 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


There are insulated tiffin bags for the DIY dabbawalla.

Tiffins are stainless steel, so they're nigh indestructable, they don't stain or stink, and they fit together like lunchtime legos. The downside is that they can leak if you leave them on their side, you can't nuke them, and if you have hot =and= cold items (like, say, soup and salad) they won't be hot or cold very long, and head straight to luewarm, unless you have a no-man's-land container between them (like where you'd put your nuts and trail mix - who cares if trail mix is hot or cold?).
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:54 PM on December 17, 2009


mattholomew, g'head and get one, who cares what people think. At least one person will bow to your awesomeness.
posted by sidereal at 1:58 PM on December 17, 2009


A tiffin holds six little metal cups. Fill each of the cups with a spice. (Cumin, coriander, cayenne garam masala, turmeric, cloves or star anise or cardamom.) You've then got a very cool inexpensive gift for someone that likes to cook. Or better yet keep it for yourself.

http://www.om-goods.com/desispiceround.html

Any town with an even small Indian population will have a store that sells tiffins.
posted by Keith Talent at 2:02 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Reportedly their mistake rate is just 1 in 16 million deliveries, which caused the Forbes Global magazine to award its Six Sigma certification in 2001
That's awesome.
It's also not true. Think about how much paperwork and record keeping it would require to actually measure error rate to that level.
posted by delmoi at 2:19 PM on December 17, 2009


BLT/DP is the new TCP/IP.

Bacon Lettuce Tomato / Delivery Protocol
posted by chambers at 2:30 PM on December 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's also not true. Think about how much paperwork and record keeping it would require to actually measure error rate to that level.

I don't know, this Six Sigma consulting company seems to think it's true. And here is the original 1998 Forbes article that quotes that statistic, though it doesn't mention Six Sigma.

It's possible that this article -- A perfect Six Sigma method with Zero Documentation -- may be the missing link.
posted by msalt at 3:03 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's also not true. Think about how much paperwork and record keeping it would require to actually measure error rate to that level.

Yeah, it's totally inconceivable that there would be a veritable army of pencil-pushers, sitting around in dusty offices with clunky ceiling fans, endlessly filling manila folders with triplicate forms, before tying them up with red ribbons & stacking them along a wall beside the overflowing filing cabinets, for potential future reference.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:40 PM on December 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


samosa
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:40 PM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


A tiffin holds six little metal cups. Fill each of the cups with a spice. (Cumin, coriander, cayenne garam masala, turmeric, cloves or star anise or cardamom.) You've then got a very cool inexpensive gift for someone that likes to cook. Or better yet keep it for yourself.

http://www.om-goods.com/desispiceround.html

Any town with an even small Indian population will have a store that sells tiffins.
posted by Keith Talent at 2:02 PM on December 17


while that resembles tiffins, and can be used as one, the version which comes with two little spoons and 6 tiny containers for spices is called a masaaldani (masala dani) in at least one Indian dialect, meaning "spice container", a treasured gift that mama gives you when you leave for your new home as a freshly wedded bride etc
posted by infini at 3:54 PM on December 17, 2009


(etc = so that you and your new mother-in-law can fill it with tasty homecooked food for your husband's lunches at work)
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:23 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I remember reading about this a long time ago in a novel. Was is Satanic Verses? It was fascinating. Seeing it this way is truly amazing. Great post, thanks.
posted by Splunge at 4:57 PM on December 17, 2009


It's also not true. Think about how much paperwork and record keeping it would require to actually measure error rate to that level.

How about you have a process where you record all errors, but only errors. So we estimate deliveries made based on periodic sampling, and we have 1 (one) record of an actual error. Doesn't seem too onerous to me.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:57 PM on December 17, 2009


I don't know, this Six Sigma consulting company seems to think it's true. And here is the original 1998 Forbes article that quotes that statistic, though it doesn't mention Six Sigma.

I know a lot of people think it's true, but it's not.
Yeah, it's totally inconceivable that there would be a veritable army of pencil-pushers, sitting around in dusty offices with clunky ceiling fans, endlessly filling manila folders with triplicate forms, before tying them up with red ribbons & stacking them along a wall beside the overflowing filing cabinets, for potential future reference.
It certainly is when the goal would be to measure how effective a food delivery service is down to one part in ten million. And to get an adequate sample size you would actually need to track perhaps a hundred million of these deliveries. And of course all the paperwork would need to be flawless as well. Why would they do it? What would be the point of such an endeavor? To provide an anecdote for brain-dead six-sigma consultants?
How about you have a process where you record all errors, but only errors. So we estimate deliveries made based on periodic sampling, and we have 1 (one) record of an actual error. Doesn't seem too onerous to me.
How would you know if other deliveries had failed, but had not been recorded?
posted by delmoi at 5:12 PM on December 17, 2009


I know a lot of people think it's true, but it's not.

If you have any proof to the contrary, I'm sure we'd all be interested to see it.
posted by armage at 6:08 PM on December 17, 2009


delmoi, let us have our fantasy about the dabbawallas being awesome and near-perfect, please?
posted by msali at 7:42 PM on December 17, 2009


Actually, no, to be fair, there needs to be solid proof that the dabbawallas are doing what they claim. Extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proof, etc. That said, I have no doubt their accuracy is very high... but mmmmmaybe not one mistake per eight million transactions high.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:12 PM on December 17, 2009


Wikipedia seems to think the error rate is a rather more modest one in six million, but the cite goes to the Economist and I don't have a registration over there.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:04 PM on December 17, 2009


I found it perplexing why anyone would use a dabbawalla and why they wouldn't just carry a lunchbox to work. However I dug around on Wikipedia and found this in the talk page:
Why can't the husbands carry their own lunches to work? RickK 21:28, Jun 2, 2004 (UTC)
Typically because lunch wouldn't quite be ready by the time they leave in the morning. Ambarish | Talk 22:39, 2 Jun 2004 (UTC)
Also, in India, people prefer food that is hot (temperature) and fresh.--g
posted by crapmatic at 10:20 PM on December 17, 2009


Can I have someone (sorry, I don't have a wife) make me a delicious tiffin and then deliver it to me? Generally, I have to drive about 10 miles north to go to Pioneer Blvd in Artesia for a lovely lunch.
posted by msjen at 11:06 PM on December 17, 2009


That said, I have no doubt their accuracy is very high... but mmmmmaybe not one mistake per eight million transactions high.

Hey, why all the cynicism? After all, the trains run on time, to the very second. ah chai chai chai, garam chai.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:13 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


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