When you think of the world’s most efficient and successful performance and supply chains, what comes to mind?

For many, large corporate giants like Dell, Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola instantly pop into our heads. But few, if any, would think a cultural structure and meal delivery system in Mumbai, India, would be among the world’s most successful performance chains.


And yet, a system based on barefoot men, public trains and simple, reusable containers in a city of some 12.5 million people is widely regarded as one of the top performance chains in the world.

In fact, the 125-year-old industry using dabbawalas was recognized at the six sigma level by Forbes in 2002. More than 175,000 lunches are moved and delivered each day by an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas across Mumbai. What’s more impressive is that according to a recent survey, dabbawalas make less than one mistake in every 6 million deliveries. Now that’s efficiency.

So, what are these dabbawalas doing so right? What can larger organizations with many more resources learn from this simplistic system? A few things stand out for me:

  • No over-reliance on technology. Sure, the dabbawalas are now using Web technology and SMS for orders, but for the most part this is a fairly low-tech operation. It relies on trains and barefoot men. No computer chips. No social networks. Just guys busting their humps and a reliable train service. The lesson for organizations? Don’t expect technology to solve your issues — usually the issue has more to do with process, execution and expectations than it does bits and bytes.
  • Create an integrated performance chain. In other words, the dabbawala system keeps its eye on the sum — not the individual parts. When you boil it down to simple terms, a performance chain is really just a system of moving pieces. Focus too much on those individual pieces and you get hung up in the details and, as a result, are less efficient. Concentrate on the entire system and flow of products and information and you have a much better chance of success.
  • Acute visibility. The beauty of the dabbawala-based system is that all of the dabbawalas understand exactly what is happening and when — to the minute. If certain deadlines and hand-offs are missed, people don’t eat. It’s as simple as that. Make sure everyone within your chain understands what he or she needs to do, where they need to be and what needs to happen for the chain to be successful.
  • Keep it simple. Real simple. One of the key lessons any organization can learn from the dabbawalas is the simplicity with which this system works. The dabbawalas are intimately aware of what their customers value (food delivered on time, every day). And, just as importantly, they don’t try to do anything other than that. They don’t overcomplicate things. They don’t add extraneous value. They simply understand what their customers want, and they focus 100 percent of their time and energy on meeting that need.

As you look at your performance chain, how can you simplify your system? Can you take pieces that are not meeting the single customer need out of the chain? And, do you really know what your single customer need is? That is always a good place to start.

What do you think? What can corporate giants learn from this behemoth network of barefoot men?

Sue Gillman, Aveus partner and co-owner, has led development, planning, operations and supply chain improvement efforts for 25 years. Known for incisive operating model strategy, holistic problem solving and collaborative change coaching, Sue has held progressive leadership positions at Seagate Technology, where she founded and led the Lean Enterprise practice, which redefined global supply chain disciplines and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profit, capacity and speed-to-market benefits for the company and its suppliers. Also at Seagate, Sue started, transferred and led Materials and Planning for global operations in Minneapolis, Oklahoma City and Singapore, led Technical Program Development for customers, and led architecture development and improvement across every link in Seagate’s global supply chain.

Sue has a master in business administration degree from the University of St. Thomas, where she has taught operations for 15 years. She also has a bachelor of business administration in finance degree from the University of Minnesota. For more information, visit www.aveus.com. You can reach Sue at [email protected].

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