Dabbawalas

St Petersburg        The romance has been gone from flying for quite some time, but in the current fuel crises, the ridiculous has become the absurd as schedules worsen and costs accelerate.  Earlier this week I took what once was a relatively painless hop to Chicago on direct flights from New Orleans up and back was an 18 hour marathon leaving at 6 AM and touching ground at 11 PM — without delays but with time in Atlanta.  A hop over to Tampa hardly an hour and a half flight normally was a 530 AM wheels up and 10:23 PM touchdown — with no delays and time in Houston.   

    All of which made me read with more interest than usual a short piece about the amazing organizational logistics of the dabbawala collective in India in a fairly recent back issue of The Economist.  Amazingly, 5000 dabbawala’s use an intricate system to deliver over 170,000 lunch meals to their customers on a daily basis with an error rate that has been calculated at approximately 1 in 6,000,000 deliveries.  At 9 in the morning they wheel up trolleys for loading on the train filled with the meals held in cylindrical metal tins that are marked with a color coded lettering system for delivery.  The color coding allows resorting on the trolleys for approximate delivery destinations, and then delivered to the customer.  

    No computers are used.  There is no incentive pay — all of the dabbawalas are paid the same amount.  The whole system relies on “human and social ingenuity,” to use gthe words of Paul Goodman, an organizational psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon.

    Businesses and professors are now studying what they are doing, so who knows what a mess will be made of such cross-cultural dialogue, but as I flew backwards and sideways to get forward all over the country this week, I wish we would learn something from somebody so we could do simple things, like fly in a straight line again.

Dabbawalas of Mumbai
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