This is as near a compilation as my memory permits. Prone to errors of understanding – not intended though. You may find some inconsistencies.
Met Mr Raghunath Medge in Jaipur where he had come to deliver a lecture. Over soup first for 5-6 minutes and the PowerPoint presentation by one of his colleagues who is also dabbawala. Medge had a disarming (or winning) smile (notice the photo)– something that comes only with confidence and clarity. His colleague who presented had a sense of humour – sometimes wry, sometime practical, sometimes subtle and sometimes straight, which ran right through his 40-45 minutes presentation. His colleague spoke right through in fluent English.
Much has been written about MDs, I will be brief.
- On their USP – what needs of customers they fulfill – Mumbai is a crowded city and the sub urban train is the lifeline of commute. People get jostled and it is impossible for them to carry the dabba with them – it will get knocked off or tilted or they can end up injuring themselves. Yet they want to eat home food. This is where we come in. (I thought it would be either people want to eat fresh/ hot food or that the home makers can’t finish their cooking before the employee leaves the house. I was a little surprised. Also how could it have been a factor 125 years ago. But I could not cross verify – I felt by the time I had already more than my fair share of his time).
2 Someone asked him: The younger generation is more inclined to eat out – won’t it be a threat to your business? Medge said that they are not in the business of creating demand like some companies do, but there only to fulfill an existing need.
The presenter shrugged his shoulders in a manner to indicate – ‘so be it. Let it shrink. If the need is fulfilled otherwise, it is OK’. He continued: ‘Sir when you are young you can eat anything and digest. But by mid-30s you start yearning for stable diet habits and home food. So long as this continues we can continue with our business’.
3 Their current failure rate is 1 in 16 million (forget six sigma). One wrong delivery in 42 days from approx. 4 lac transactions a day. Someone quizzed him what helps them achieve such high astounding levels. The presenter said: ‘Sir, amongst our customers are both Jain bhai and Saleem bhai. Imagine we swap it and deliver Saleem’s to Jain and vice versa. Saleem may be able to eat his lunch but Jain bhai will throw the food on our face when we go to collect back the dabba. That is what we seek to avoid.
4 After the 1st opening slide he could not move to the second (something went wrong with the remote control). He remarked – see technology and why we don’t depend on it. During Q and A, I quizzed him if they had used mobile technology usefully. He said that what they seek to achieve and their business model, he doesn’t see much scope. People use it for communicating with each other or their family or to call in sick but it is not in our procedure.
Later when the mike was passing around for Qs the mike failed – the Qer started fiddling around – did not help, next person tried to help, no use, the technician tried -no success. Technician changed the mike. Strange co-incidence I would say (not a fib). He looked at me (rather stared at me) and said… ‘technaalajee. We can’t afford this failure rate and achieve 1/16 million rate’.
‘Sir (he continued as if he was trying to make amends for being sarky) Technology has been created by Human brain. He pointed to his head and when we put on this cap (his cap – both of them were wearing one – alluding to thinking cap) on top of brain… we can create any solution or solve any problems sir. We don’t need to depend on technology’.
5 They are a rare case (if not the only one) where the ISO certification has been issued without their asking for or applying for it. Similarly they are a rare one – a commercial enterprise – to have been listed under Ripleys ‘believe it or not’ – again without application.
6 They have not had a single strike in 125 years except in token support of Anna Hazare for a day. ‘All employees are shareholders’, he reasoned. On absenteeism – we have mukadams (co-ordinaters) in each station – 800 of them compared to employee strength of 5000. A day’s notice is required for absence except sickness and the mukadams have to arrange for alternative. He is not supposed to leave his station until all his dabbas are accounted for. Punishment for false absence is high (fines) or dismissal.
7 The employees make 5000-8000 per month depending on dabba numbers. They make supplemental income by delivering milk in the morning. Nowadays most restaurants have started home delivery which starts by 6-7 pm. They do it. The association has talked to Flipkart and tied up – only referral but the individual dabbawalas to co-ordinate directly.
To one of the question on whether they should pay their employees more by charging customers more ‘Sir our average literacy is 8th standard. We seek to provide employment to those who may not get employment elsewhere. We also need to take care of our customers. We charge Rs 500-800/month depending on weight. We know some customers may pay Rs 2000 but the overall business will shrink. We are not a commercial organization to squeeze out every penny. We are happy with what we are earning’
8 Biggest threats to their business: ‘Mumbai is getting more and more crowded. Collapse of suburban system will put us out of business. As of now cycles (they carry 35 dabbas per cycle; if it is headload 60 kgs irrespective of number) are not licensed. Otherwise harassment from police will start. On our part we never violate rules/signals although cycles are not covered under the rules.
‘We usually leave the dabba at the reception. When there were 3-4 customers in the same place, some of them were not able to identify their own dabbas. That is why when we revised the code last time, we have put the name also on the lid’. They have revised the coding structure 3-4 times during the last 125 years. Colour coding, tying with colour strings, back to pictorials, alpha numeric and now revised alpha numeric. A place for each and each in its place. A person sorting at a station (it is sorted and re arranged 5 or 6 times during its journey) need to look at only one digit and it is the same place on all dabbas and he knows where exactly it is. That explains the speed and accuracy.
9 Of the various people who have visited them from Prince Charles to Bipasha Basu, they seem to revere Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Atlantic) the most. He wore our cloths, travelled with a dabbawala, and onto a 3rd class vendor compartment from Dadar to Churchgate, sorting out dabbas, finally at Churchgate where he was stopped by the Police for security reasons when the press and media got wind of it and crowded. The man has learnt the maximum out of us and had posted it in each of his offices worldwide.
10 The invite to Price Charles wedding seems somewhat induced. They heard that he was getting married on 8th April which was amavasya day and thought he should get married on 9th April which was Gudipadwa. ‘We prayed that his second marriage does not go sour and sent him our gifts – a Paithani silk sari, a pagdi worn in our community and a Kolhapuri chappel. The Royal family sent an invite. Air India flew us free. The Pope died on 6th and hence the mourning went on till 8th and Prince Charles finally got married on 9th.’
11 Political ambitions: ‘No sir. It requires money and these days even goonda gardhi. We have neither’.
12 About whether he visits his customers. ‘Sir I am 3rd generation dabbawala. My father and grand father have done it for years. I have done this daily routine for 12 years. And then intermittently. Only after my Knee operation 7 years ago I have not been able to do it. In any case I keep speaking to them and given my cell number for complaints from customers. So I am aware of what is happening on the ground’.
It was mentioned that the new coding structure was designed by him which reveals an intimate ground level knowledge.