After Six Sigma, now to English

From IIMs to classrooms

After Six Sigma,  now to English

Dabbawalas take part in a computer class in Mumbai.

Good Morning, Madam, Namashkar,” the dabbawala, or the tiffin supplier, greeted the pleasantly surprised lady living in Mumbai’s Tilak Nagar. The woman’s husband works in Air India at its headquarters at Nariman Point in South Mumbai and for years she has been sending tiffin to him thanks to the famed service of dabbawalas.

Earlier, the dabbawala used to knock the door and then just smile before carrying away the tiffin, but thanks to the recently launched special training programme in the English language by Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University in Nashik, in collaboration with Agrawal Institute of Management and Technology, he has begun greeting his customers in English.

From England’s Prince Charles to aviation mughal Richard Branson, Mumbai’s dabbawalas have won fans the world over for their management skills. For over 100 years, these uneducated people who came to Mumbai from Maharashtra’s remote villages have delivered food to every part of the city, earning them a Six Sigma rating (a Forbes rating of 99.9 per cent which means one error in six million transactions). Such is the adroitness of the Mumbai’s dabbawalas that their management skills are even studied in some top business schools across the globe. But understanding English was their weakness in these times, and they are determined to overcome this shortcoming.

“Knowing Hindi and Marathi alone is not enough. By learning English we hope to improve our business further,” Raghunath Medge, the President of Mumbai Dabbawalas’ Association told Deccan Herald.

True to his words, over two dozen dabbawallas are currently learning basic English and basic computer training for past two weeks. “Our association has around 5,000 members. Most have dropped out after sixth or seventh standards and  do not understand English. Our customers give the address of their destination, office or residence in English, so it is difficult for us to understand. Nowthat dabbawallas have mobile phones, customers send addresses via SMSes in English,” Medge explained. To add to the dabbawalas’ problems, many signboards and nameplates in Mumbai are also in English.

“What will the dabbawalla do? He will go around asking people in the vicinity for that address. But as most people are busy, they don’t help us. So, if we learn English, it will make it easy for us to read the address of our customers and will help us in
delivering the tiffin easily.”

The initiative came from Maharashtra Open University and its vice chancellor Krishna Kumar called a meeting to discuss the proposal. Medge, association’s secretary Gangaram Talekar, Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Bharatkumar Raut and Agarwal Institute’s Pawan Agrawal, who has done a PhD on the dabbawallas, drafted the programme that led to the University offering basic course in English speaking and computers not only for dabbawallas, but also for taxi drivers, labourers, maids and so on.

“We could not learn much. I am a graduate, but my colleagues could not get the opportunity to learn. Now we wish that if not us, at least our next generation should learn, they will certainly benefit from it,” said Medge.

While the ideas are always fine, their implementation is all that matters. And here, Agrawal lent his helping hand. His institute is located at Vikhroli in North East Mumbai, where he offered to conduct classes for the dabbawallas. On Teachers’ Day, September 5, the course was inaugurated with 25 dabbawalas, including Medge and Talekar, participating in the opening session.

“I got the opportunity to teach the first batch of Mumbai dabbawalas English as well as computer in my premises. It’s a great honour for me,” said Pawan Agrawal, who heads the institute. “We will impart training for four hours every Sunday, which is a holiday for dabbawallas, and so far we have completed two sessions. The course is spread over six months, at the end of which those who complete the course will get a university certificate,” Agrawal told Deccan Herald.

At the training centre, two rows of computer consoles are embedded in a long wooden frame resembling Mumbai’s lifeline - the suburban local train. For the dabbawallas, the local trains are the must, they commute by these trains at vast distances covering 60-65 km one way to deliver freshly cooked food to their customers, and without these trains their service would just come to a halt. Agrawal and his staff, headed by Ravindra Sawant, have created several placards for easy understanding of English, which adorn the walls of his compact classroom. One placard reads “Suprabhat! Good Morning!” It is greeting in Marathi, then English greeting written in Marathi (Devnagari) script, and then in Roman script. Agrawal starts with the greeting, and his middle-aged students, all wearing Gandhi caps, echo him loudly and enthusiastically.

“Initially, we are teaching them the commonly used words and short sentences, which will be of real help to them in their service,” Agrawal said. As for the computer training, the dabbawallas will be trained to create their e-mail IDs, open e-mails and reply to them. This is because many customers would prefer to send their addresses via e-mails.
“these days, hardly anybody wants to go on inquiring about a dabbawalla. The customers want everything at the click of the mouse, and the dabbawallas should be ready for the change,” said Medge.

A beaming Talekar, at 67 one of the seniormost dabbawala, who has undergone two by-pass surgeries, is so thrilled that he has promised to deliver a lecture in English at the time of convocation. Another trainee speaks in faltering English with the crew of a TV news channel who wee shooting the coaching session.

“The real challenge is retaining all the 25  dabbawallas in the classroom till the end of the course. Even 10 participants completing the entire course will be an achievement. It will inspire many others to undertake similar course,” Agrawal said. The course material is provided by the open university free of charge. Two more centres are being planned, one in South Mumbai and another on the western line.

Explaining their work, Medge said each tiffin is usually handled by three to four dabbawallas. First, the collecting Dabbawala collects the tiffin from the residence at around 9 am. The collected tiffins are then brought to the nearby railway station, and the tiffins are sorted out on basis of destinations. Time is crucial and if the tiffin is not kept ready for the dabbawala to collect, and if the delay becomes a regular feature, the customer is dropped.

Each tiffin has a colour code that distinguishes it on basis of residence station, destination  station, the destination building and the group of dabbawallas that will handle it. Once the tiffins are sorted out, they are placed in a cart based on
destinations and are sent by local trains.

At the destination station, the tiffins are collected and again sorted on basis of buildings. The  delivery persons then take tiffins on by-cycles and go to buildings such as Air India, Mittal Towers etc.

What is most important is these delivery persons have memorised the tiffins and their owners, so that each tiffin is delivered to the exact person. This has earned them the Six Sigma rating and a place in Guinness Book of World Records.

The empty tiffin boxes are again collected from offices after an hour and brought back to the destination station, sorted on basis of their residential stations and are returned. By 3 to 4 pm, the tiffin boxes are back home. All this work does not involve any technology or machines, and the entire work is done by illiterate or neo-literate Marathi Manoos. That is management.

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