Good Process is Good Customer Experience: Learning From the Mumbai Dabbawalas by @rakheeghelani

Photo Credit: digiboheme via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: digiboheme via Compfight cc

by Rakhee Ghelani | Featured Contributor

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you have to spend a fortune to improve your customer experience, but this isn’t always the case. In many instances that I have seen in my career, simply having a good process can go a long way towards a great customer experience. This goes for the most complex issues, or even the simplest.

As an example, let’s take a look at the case of the Mumbai Dabbawalas. These are a group of 5,000 people who deliver over 200,000 cooked lunches each day in the city of Mumbai. Their process is so impressive that even Harvard Business School has studied them. What makes them so fascinating is they have a proven Six Sigma success rate of over 99.9%, that’s a lot of happy customers every day.

Let’s take a look at some facts about the dabbawalas (the delivery people):

  • All delivery addresses are written in English yet almost all of the dabbawalas are illiterate or do not read English;
  • No mobile phones or communication devices are used;
  • Each lunch box passes through at least 6 different hands before reaching its destination; and
  • The cost of each delivery is about Rs20 (US$0.35).

Taking all that into consideration it is almost mind-boggling how the dabbawalas manage to keep so many customers happy every day.  The secret is in good process and discipline. As long as everyone follows the process, the system is almost foolproof. Some of the key elements are:

1. The Label

The label that has the address on it uses a coding system so that the dabbawala, who can’t read English, knows where to take it. There is a number for each delivery building and floor, another number for each dabbawala, another code for the train station that the lunchbox needs to go to and one more to indicate the main hub station that it must go to first. So as long as the lunchbox makes it to the right delivery person, they will know which building to take it to.

 2. Systematic process

The lunch boxes travel across Mumbai by train, some may travel over 30 kilometres over the course of three hours. There are several hub stations that have been identified along the way, where lunch boxes are transferred, to make sure they get to the right final station. These are all indicated on the label, so each of the six different people who touch the lunchbox on its journey know where it is going and how it has to get there. As long as the label is correct, the lunch box should make it to the right hub station. The team at the hub station will then make sure it gets to the right delivery person.

There are a few key points that can be taken from this study to help you improve the experience of your customer.

1. Keep it Simple

It isn’t always necessary to over-complicate things with fancy tools and processes. Sometimes the simplest things executed well are all you need. A handwritten label can be more effective than fancy devices.

2. Make Sure Everyone Understands Their Role

Each person in the delivery chain understands what their role is and knows how to do it. They also know that the person who comes after them in the process is relying on them to do their job correctly.  By performing their individual role well, they then set up the people in the process after them for success.

 3. Work Individually But Operate as a Team

Teamwork can occur even where people are working autonomously. As long as each individual understands how their role impacts another, they are still operating as a team. The dabbawalas are so in sync with each other they all take holidays at exactly the same time and shut down their service for that period. This ensures that they all get a well-earned rest and they don’t individually let the team down.

So next time you are trying to work out how to help your customers, why not take a leaf from the famous Mumbai dabawalas and see if you can make things simpler and more efficient without spending a fortune.


Rakhee Ghelani Customer Experience Specialist – Mumbai, India

RG High ResRakhee Ghelani is an Australian woman who abandoned her successful corporate career to move to India in 2011.  She now works as a freelance consultant, writer and entrepreneur in Mumbai. Her extensive skill set allows her to add value to businesses in industries as varied as travel, manufacturing and publishing.

Prior to leaving Australia, Rakhee was head of Customer Experience for ANZ Bank’s Mortgages division, responsible for over 850,000 customers. Customers don’t generally “like” banks or having a mortgage, so it was a challenging but rewarding role that also sparked her interest in helping other companies wow their customers. She believes customer experience extends far beyond how you speak to a customer in a retail store or on the phone, it is about understanding what they want and need, and getting it right every time.

Rakhee is also a travel writer and photographer, and a co-founder of Gourmet Pop-Up shop in Mumbai called Potluck Me. She has a few other entrepreneurial efforts in the pipeline and is currently writing her autobiography. An extensive traveler, you can follow Rakhee’s adventures across India and the world here:

Blog: Aussie Girl in India
Facebook: Rakhee Ghelani
Twitter:  @rakheeghelani 
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