Dabbawallas of Mumbai

Evolving Excellence points to a New York Times article on the amazing dabbawallas of Mumbai, the lunch-pail delivery service that uses the Mumbai municipal rail network.  The dabbawallas, in operation since 1890, are the topic of a 2004 Harvard Business School case study.  I also found a case from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, which is the source for the data below.

The dabbawallas have achieved stupendous quality using low-tech visual management (colored symbols and numbers painted on the pails).  The 5000 dabbawallas deliver 150,000 lunch pails every morning, six days a week, and return them in the evening.  They report “less than six errors in 13 million transactions,” – about 48 errors per year, or 0.5 errors per million.  For comparison, Six Sigma quality is achieved at 3.4 errors per million.  (Note however that the second article linked above, which appears older, puts the error rate higher, between 33 and 50 per million, due to theft.)

Here’s to the dabbawallas – a testament to what can be done with determination and a little ingenuity, and a challenge for all of us struggling with yield loss in the 0.1%, 1%, or 5% range.

MORE: An article from MidDay newspaper, putting the error rate at better than 1 part per 6 million, and describing how the dabbawallas work as a group to solve problems and provide one another with credit.

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