The Lunch Box

A couple of months ago I watched a film called ‘The Lunch Box’ (trailer here). Beside the love story between the two protagonists it narrates the incredible story of the super efficient meal delivery system of Indian dabbawalas.

Every day, approximately 4,000 dabbawalas pick up 160,000 home-cooked lunches from the kitchens of suburban wives and mothers, hop on trains, and deliver them, via bike, directly to Mumbai office workers (The Guardian). Later on, they pick up and bring back the same empty tiffins.
Despite the lack of fuel, computers, or modern technology involved, a tiffin goes on the wrong desk only once every two months. That’s why Forbes awarded the dabbawallahs a 6 Sigma performance rating (Forbes).
The beauty of the system, Mr Medge –President of the Tiffin-wallahs’ Union– explained, is the colour coding used on the top of each tiffin box. The home address, office address, railway stations of delivery and pick-up are all crunched into a small series of letters and numbers, painted by hand. “They’ve never lost one of the lunches I do for my husband. In fact I’ve never heard of them being late or losing one” says Mrs Dordy, who pays 300 rupees (£4) a month for the service (The Indipendent).
Going back to Forbe’s article, I was particularly interested by a concept it introduces: the frugal innovation, also called Jugaad in India  (Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist on Frugal Innovation here). Professor Jaideep Prabhu held a very good talk at TEDxUCL in which he argues that the West must look to emerging markets like India for a new approach to innovation that is frugal, flexible and inclusive. He explained very good case studies as well, such as Mansukhbhai Prajapati’s Mitticool Fridge or TATA’s ‘Swach‘ water filter (here the TEDx Talk). Jugaad is the art of overcoming constraints by improvising an effective solution using limited resources, he said.
The concept of Jugaad is not just about developing new technology. The Daballawas’ very simple business model demonstrates it: they collect meals in boxes and deliver them to the workplace for a modest monthly fee. What is not so simple is the delivery process. Their supply chain is made up of a complex series of collection zones, sorting points, and delivery zones, supported only by an elaborate manual coding system. The codes are made up of only numbers and colors because 50% of the employees are illiterate. The only modern technology used in the process is are a website and a text message receiving system which allow customers to request deliveries in real time. As we can deduce from this example, frugal innovation has a lot to do with process. Then, another key point are the circumstances of the operating environment: one of the main reasons the Dabbawalas are so successful in Mumbai but haven’t yet expanded to other cities is that their system is built on a combination of characteristics that is unique to Mumbai (Forbes).