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1. Build your organisation around people
Much of the dabbawala organisation’s success is due to their human resource system, in the way they hire, develop, manage and reward people, says Stefan Thomke, William Barclay Harding Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. “It’s an organisation built around people, not around technology.”

2. Commitment and attitude trump qualifications
Although the dabbawalas are semi-literate, they are “suitably educated” for their jobs because they believe in serving the customer above all else. “We couldn’t hire MBAs,” says Manish Tripathi, founder and chairman of the Dabbawala Foundation.

3. Give employees a sense of purpose and value
The dedication of the dabbawalas can be partly attributed to the value they place on the work they do. “Our dabbawalas view their work as worship. They are grateful to have work, and to serve others by delivering food is to serve God,” says Manish. As a result, he says, everyone in Mumbai respects the dabbawalas for the work they do.

4. Stay true to your core purpose
While the dabbawala organisation has received suggestions to branch out into other business lines, such as cooking the food instead of merely supplying it, it has stayed true to its century-old purpose. “We focus on delivering dabbas to our customers as best as we can,” says Manish.

5. Recruit carefully
New dabbawalas go through a strict six-month probationary period and are hired from only the villages around Pune, so they suit the working culture. “We are all one family, from the Vakari sect. We eat lunch together and we pray together,” says Manish.

6. Don’t be too lean, build in buffers
“Each dabbawala is capable of collecting up to 20 dabbas a day – but this is the maximum. Usually, in a group, each dabbawala will collect less so that if a dabbawala is sick the others can compensate. New dabbawalas are hired only to replace a member or when there are too many new customers in an area,” says Manish.

7. Encourage self-discipline
The dabbawalas are self-motivated to be disciplined, not because they have a superior telling them what to do, says Manish. “They work right because it’s the right thing to do. Self-discipline is the way to make an organisation great.”

8. Create a sense of ownership
The dabbawala organisation has no employees because every member is a shareholder, says Manish. “So if one member does less work and earns less money, he’s also hurting himself.”

9. Maintain a flat organisation
Harvard Business School’s case study notes that the dabbawala organisation has evolved into a flat organisational structure to enable quick decision-making.

10. Abandon bad customers

“One customer should not cause thousands to suffer. If a Mumbai housewife is late with the dabba for more than one week, we no longer serve that customer,” says Manish.

 

 

This article appeared in Management@work, the monthly management pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 839, Jan 3-9, 2011

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