AXELOS ProPath, the world's most powerful project, programme and portfolio best practice certifications

Taking your project team to lunch

Adeline Teoh ed.
August 11, 2014

How does one of the world’s most chaotic cities, Mumbai, produce one of the world’s most efficient lunch delivery systems?

According to an oft-quoted Harvard study, just one in a million tiffins that travel through Mumbai’s dabbawala system is delivered to the wrong person. Started in the late 19th century when a man started work at an office too far from his house to pop in for a home-cooked lunch, the dabbawala system couriers some 130,000 tiffins to and from offices every day, six days a week.

A recent viewing of the film The Lunchbox, where the story evolves from that one mistakenly delivered lunchbox connecting two lonely people, got me curious about the statistic. While the author of the study, Professor Stefan Thomke, says the figure hasn’t been verified, he does confirm that the number of mistakes is very, very small for what amounts to more than 6 million deliveries every month.

What makes the system work is a perfect confluence of teamwork and infrastructure. For starters, the dabbawalas are all from the Vakari sect, which practises a particularly strong brand of community spirit. They eat together, they pray together and most important of all, they trust one another implicitly. The dabbawala that picks up the tiffins from the kitchens trusts that his colleague will get the tiffin to the right train on time and that his colleague will deliver the tiffin to the right person in the right office and then back the other way.

The second part is infrastructure. While each neighbourhood round is usually traversed by bicycle, Mumbai’s legendary train system, which the dabbawalas rely on to move large numbers of tiffins across the city, is what makes the system so efficient—and eco-friendly too.

What can the dabbawalas tell us about efficient systems and managing a team? You don’t need technology or superstars for a project to succeed, just a group of reliable people who work well with each other to get the job done.

What interesting lessons have you learnt from systems outside your industry?

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
Read more