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The Most Reliable Supply Chain…Without Technology?

Food containers on asian kitchen shelf

Editor's Note: This is a blog post about remembering the fundamentals in order to achieve success. Of course, we live in a high technology powered supply chain world, but often, as we noted in our 5 Upfront LTL Tips post, if you don't remember the basics and best practices, no technology is going to fix those issues, but only make them more apparent. We hope you enjoy this great story about supply chain without technology. 

Is your supply chain running as effectively as it should be? Are orders being missed? Do you carry too much inventory? Is your lead time too long? If so, it may be time to go back to basics. Read on to learn about Dabbawala, a lunch box carrier company based in India, who has their system down to a science.

Back to Basics

When it comes to supply chain management, many companies use corporations on lists like the “Gartner Supply Chain Top 25” as a benchmark. These lists typically include big name companies like Apple, McDonald’s and Amazon. These companies have huge supply chains with a global reach. They have the funds to access the latest technology, complete extensive R&D and implement new innovations surrounding logistics and supply chain management. Not every company can compare themselves or realistically strive to be as good as McDonald’s. However, it seems that many companies fail to even think about going “back to basics” when it comes to supply chain management.

Dabbawala’s are lunch box carriers in India, most commonly found in Mumbai. Their job is to pick up tiffins (metal lunch boxes) filled with home cooked meals from the suburbs in Mumbai and deliver them to the rightful owners by lunch time in the downtown offices of Mumbai.  This system is a hundred year old lunch delivery service. When I say system, I truly mean it. They have it down to a science, and they really must all work together to maintain their six sigma performance. That’s right, out of the 175,000-200,000 lunch boxes moved to and from offices each day, they only make a mistake maybe once every two months. That fill rate gets you thinking. So how do they do it?

An Efficient Model

The key to Dabbawala’s system is that it’s basic, easy to understand and easy to follow. Everyone gets it and works together! Each tiffin is coded. The code tells the Dabbawala which rail station it must be delivered to, which rail station it originated from, the area it was collected from, the area to be delivered and the floor of the building it is to be delivered to. This code is painted on the top of each tiffin. They are all done the same way.

At 9:00 am the tins are collected from the homes in the suburbs each working day. Then the Dabbawala’s make their way to a sorting place where the tins are all organized based on destination.  They are then transported via bicycle to the train station.  Once the tins meet the train station, they are managed all the way to their destination rail station. That’s where the tins change hands for a fourth time. They are then passed off to another Dabbawala on a bicycle. He then delivers the tin to the rightful owner in the right office building.

Theoretically, one lunch tin can switch hands about 5 times and still makes it to the hungry office worker who is eagerly awaiting his home cooked meal. Reverse logistics occur in the afternoon, taking the tins all the way back to the suburbs. Even through monsoons and political downturns they still ensure the lunch kits get to their rightful owners on time; during these times they are known to collaborate even more and share short cuts and other low-profile routes. Policemen even give them the right of way on the roads – they can be recognized by their little white hats. Today, they are beginning to integrate some technology into their routine—some Dabbawala’s now accept text message requests for tiffin pickup.

Trusting your Supply Chain

It seems that Dabbawala’s are masters in communication, collaboration and trust. They are all counting on each other to ensure each tiffin is successfully delivered. They have managed to achieve (not fully knowingly), six sigma rates with very little technology—and no automation. Without their commitment to communication, collaboration and trust, they wouldn’t have the fill rates they do, or the customer satisfaction levels… let alone the world renowned respect. It doesn’t seem that those factors are high priorities in today’s supply chain. Companies are trying to independently fill their demand and keep their heads down rather than working with their suppliers and vendors to succeed together.

If you’re ready to go back to basics and create a more reliable supply chain through increased communication, collaboration and trust, contact GO Productivity and ask about our Supply Chain Collaboration Simulation

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Lindsay Neis

Lindsay Neis

Client Services and Supply Chain at Go Productivity
At GO Productivity I support the planning and roll out of the Supply Chain Collaboration Simulation as well as the Productivity Assessment Tool. I facilitate the “Productivity 101” introductory workshops as well as assist in the facilitation of the Productivity Improvement Network. I consult and coach companies through their productivity challenges with my knowledge on supply chain and Lean Six Sigma best practices, all while managing the budget. Further, I write blog posts on Supply Chain Management, network and take a role in the promotion and production of our annual Productivity Summit and Golf Tournament.
Lindsay Neis
Lindsay Neis

Latest posts by Lindsay Neis (see all)

  • Hi Lindsay:

    Excellent post! Good for you. It is the basics that tech people forget: people, collaboration, communication, data integrity and teamwork. Technology will not work in a supply chain without these issues being in focus.

    Some times the drivers in India use a “tuk-tuk” to deliver food. I have a photo of one on my web site.

    Thank you.

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