Work is Worship: What the Dabbawalas Can Teach the World

The 125-year-old Mumbai Dabbawala service with its value for customer satisfaction and time has taken the world by storm with its efficiency

Published: 02nd March 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st March 2015 07:50 PM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: If anyone or anything stands as an example of flawless execution, peerless customer satisfaction and most of all, the efficacy of informal education — Mumbai’s Dabbawalas take the prize by a long mile.

For a 5,000-strong group of mostly illiterate people who operate a ‘food delivery’ service of Six Sigma efficiency, these men have won their laurels with a simple motto — Work is worship, and the customer is God.

Dr Pawan Agrawal.jpgMumbai’s Dabbawalas and their unmatched efficiency have long captured the imagination of a world that has come to prize the comforts of technology. And to that world, that the Dabbawalas’ ‘stats’ are astounding is an understatement. “They operate a service that delivers 200,000 tiffin boxes to offices and schools all over Mumbai. And how many persons do this? Five thousand mostly illiterate people,” declared Dr Pawan Agrawal, a management guru who has studied them for nearly a decade.

But how have a group of persons with no formal education managed to carry on a service that has been contiguous for over 125 years? A service, as Agrawal exclaimed, that has an error margin of only one in over 16 million deliveries.

“They do this because they are proud of what they do, they are dedicated at it and they prize their customer’s satisfaction over anything else. But most of all, they are ‘educated’ a 100% at what they do,” he said.

As simple as it may sound, Agrawal states that this is the primary driver behind the success of the Dabbawalas. A service that is dedicated to never, ever disappointing a customer that it has never gone through a strike in its 125 years of history.

“I have asked several of them what they earn. They say they earn around `12,000 a month. They do other odd jobs after the nine hours of ferrying tiffin boxes around the city with a 20 minute lunch break in between. But when you ask why they do not charge more, the answer is simple — our customers are those who use the local train for transport and eat home food because eating outside is expensive. How can I raise the rates, we have to reduce it,” he said.

And this, according to the man who takes the dabbawalas’ amazing story to the world, is something that everyone needs to follow. “We all need to take note of this. These men do not feel pressured or unhappy at the end of their day. Why? Because for them the joy is in the satisfaction of their customers and the satisfaction of a job well done,” he observed.

The Dabbawalas’ famous dedication to getting the work done is no joke. According to several accounts, including Agrawal’s, when the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, wanted to meet them, the Dabbawalas gave a slot of 20 minutes to the British royal because they could not take time off work. “That is the measure of their dedication,” remarked Agrawal.

The most relevant thing that stands out about the Dabbawalas though, said Agrawal, was how effective informal education can be. “For a child who learns by working, the knowledge he or she acquires is priceless. I believe that informal education makes more successes, maybe not in terms of money, but definitely in everything else,” declared Agrawal. But everything needs a leavening of some sort. Which is why Agrawal runs a school for the dabbawalas and their children. “Because everyone needs formal education too,” he concluded.

Astounding figures

  • In 1890, Mahadeo Bhavaji Bachche, the first dabbawala, started delivering   lunch to a Britisher who had requested for it, and that soon turned into a larger service
  • Current employee strength — 5,000
  • Area covered in a day — 60-70 km
  • Number of transactions — 8,00,000 per day
  • Working hours — eight to nine hours
  • Error rate — One in 16 million transactions
  • Tech backup — Nil
  • Cost of service — `500-`600
  • Earnings — `10,000-`12,000 per month
  • Diwali bonus — One month pay
  • Modes of transport — Bicycles and trains
  • Principles — Customer is God. No alternative to hard work.
  • Success mantra — Passion, commitment, consistency, 100 per cent execution, accuracy, dedication, time management, complete satisfaction


  • Dabbawalas work overtime, early mornings and late evenings sometimes
  • Their belief — “To live happily `16,000 is enough, but for luxury even `16 lakh may not be”
  • “If you work, you must satisfy yourself first; only then can you satisfy the customers” 
  • Work discipline — No alcohol, no smoking during business hours
  • No leave without prior notification
  • “Value-added services” — Delivering forgotten glasses and other small items
  • Uniform — White cotton kurta-pyjama and Gandhi topi (cap); easy to identify in case of accidents
  • Coding system — abbreviations for collection points, colour code for starting station, number for destination station and markings for destination building and floor
  • Credibility — No strike record, police case/court case since 1890

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