How Your Team Can Accomplish a One in 16 Million Chance of Error

Posted by: The Teamwork team /

Not many teams can boast a one in 16 million chance of error. Virtually error-free teamwork!

Only sprinkler systems are shown to have this astoundingly low error rate, and they rely on automatic mechanics. Meanwhile the same error rate applies to the Mumbai dabbawalas (loosely translated to: the one who delivers the box) and their system, run entirely by humans.

How do they attain such a smooth and hitch-free arrangement while still delivering 200,000 hot lunches (and the resulting empty lunchboxes) DAILY? Oh, did we mention the service costs less than $10 per month per lunchbox, no matter the distance between home and office?

They have been the subject of extensive case study research and we’ve come up with five reasons we believe they’re so successful.

Letting a system be the heartbeat

The entire system works because it is based on one reliable and on-schedule element – the train.

The schedule is like the dabbawala system’s heartbeat, setting the pace for everything else to fall into place on time and accurately. The train runs at certain times in the direction needed, so the schedule is created backwards based on train arrival and departure times.

Other than the train, bicycles and carts are used to transport the numerous lunchboxes.

Though each dabbawala is only responsible for about three dozen, and the lunchboxes change hands as they move closer to their home or office recipient.

It is an elegantly choreographed yet completely routine ballet of men in white hats and tiffins in handled bags. Having the train dictate the timing and workflow maintains the momentum of the work using an outside element upon which they can rely completely.

Your team might not need transportation to get its work done, but look at your processes and it may surprise you to discover a central system that binds your work together and keeps your wheels turning.

Invested in the outcome

Every single one of the 4,000 members is also a shareholder, so not only do all members want it to be a success, but they succeed when it is.

Shareholding might not be an option for all companies, but even when it isn’t possible other shared benefits are available to employees contributing to success. Of course, satisfaction for a job well done is nice too. And the dabbawala system makes sure 200,000 people enjoy a hot lunch each day.

The personal investment is a decision each deliveryman has taken on, so it is one that is done with a determination to excel.

So often, we may feel deflated when we are assigned a task that isn’t of our choosing or within our usual skill set, but especially in those instances it is vital to embrace the opportunity to learn new skills, prove abilities, and contribute however possible to the project.

In those instances, we must remember we CHOSE to be part of the team by taking the job, and each member is reaffirming that decision daily by showing up and focusing on the task at hand.

Encouraging each other and sharing the successes as well as the pitfalls builds the team into a stronger entity and forges a dedication not found in more casual team environments.

Taking turns

Lunchboxes are picked up, brought to their lunchtime destination, then picked up again for their trip home. It changes hands a few times, depending on its route, but it is the nature of the system that the care of each lunchbox rests in the hands of each and every one of the 4,000 dabbawalas.

The entire system is divided into units of a couple hundred, then within that there are 25 people on a team. They may not call themselves a team, but that’s what it sounds like to us.

All members of the team are equals in every way, and the balance of leading and stepping back for others to lead might be their key to success because no one person is standing with a megaphone or walkie-talkie bossing these guys around. They know what they need to do and they pull together to get it done.

This is often a lifelong vocation and, with that, comes dedication to the work and to fellow team members.

Internal communication

A lunchbox making its way by bike, train, and cart from home to office and back may seem a bit miraculous, until you know that it is marked with an internal code.

With six vital pieces of information, the lunchbox designates the location of its home train station, destination train station, and codes that will direct the box to its residential dabbawalla (or restaurant that prepares daily lunches for a fee) and destination dabbawalla, who know where to bring it.

There is even a place for the building name and floor, but boiled down to a three-letter code. All this allows any dabbawala to understand the lunchbox’s history and purpose in a glance. This means the information can be discerned in a moment, not deterring them from their tight timeline.

External expectations

The system can be flawless, the dabbawalas may be knowledgeable with a perfect memory, but all that can fail if the customers do not know what is expected of them.

The expectations are very straightforward for customers: Have the lunchbox ready promptly and pay the monthly fee. Paying for a service is such a widespread practice that this expectation is easily understood.

In the case of the lunchboxes, it is imperative that the lunchbox be ready promptly on the residential side in order to make all pick-ups happen in a timely manner and catch the necessary train.

Then after lunch, the lunchbox must be ready at the destination point for pickup – this is often in a pile by the elevator of the office.

The overall strong sense of teamwork and shared culture, as well as history of the service, binds the dabbawallas together in a way that other teams would find enviable.

But keeping their system extremely structured allows a very simple workflow process, setting them up for success.

Additionally, experience and cultural understanding of the dabbawal tradition ensures less confusion over expectations.

In our age of technology, it seems unlikely something would run so smoothly without the aid of a gadget or app.

This example of clear communication, a strong system as a cornerstone, and teamwork bordering on brotherhood shows us just what is possible when people work together.


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Such a neat idea to draw lessons on business operations from dabbawalas! An example of another key to success: thinking outside the box. 🙂

Therese Cohalan

Hey Etan,

Thanks for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the post.
Keep thinking outside the box ;).


NearFox Mumbai

Business sense requires heavy team work, proper co-ordination, and immense knowledge of timing, which can all be learned by these dabawallas. Incredible effort.


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