Frugal Innovation

Lean Six Sigma Performance without Any Fluff

June 25, 2013

How is it possible to achieve service excellence with limited resources, limited skills, and limited technology? The story of the Mumbai Dabbawala Network continues to provide an example of just how that can be done.

Back in 2001, Forbes magazine awarded its Six Sigma certification to a minimalist network of about 5,000 dabbawalas who deliver 200,000 lunchboxes to workers across Mumbai, India. The award was based on a 99.999999% delivery accuracy rate, which translates to one error for every 16 million transactions.

Today, people are still watching their simple example of sustained service excellence. Harvard Business Review continues to report on the dabbawalas, and the Dabbawala Association is a popular case study for Harvard MBA students. Google the term and you'll find TED Talks, YouTube videos, slideshare presentations, and a variety of journal articles.

By industrial standards, the dabbawala process is simple. Dabbawalas collect lunchboxes filled with freshly cooked meals from the homes of Mumbai residents and deliver them to workers at their workplaces.

It's a straightforward process with a complex supply chain: bicycles combined with public transportation, collection zones, sorting points, delivery zones, and an elaborate manual coding system. Since half of the employees are illiterate, the coding system is based on colors and numbers. Almost no modern technology is used except for a Web site and text messaging system.

The dabbawalas' success can be attributed to four perfectly aligned and mutually reinforcing pillars:

  • Clockwork‐design organization,
  • Management by a self‐organized democracy,
  • Simple, flexible, and rigorous process, and
  • Strong culture of belonging.

I'd add one more pillar to that foundation. Forbes magazine followed its Six Sigma award by using the dabbawalas to illustrate a Jugaad mindset, which is a Hindi word roughly meaning frugal innovation or 'making do with what one has to solve one's problems.' It's a good word to know.

Sometimes what we discard as a "workaround" to a business problem, may be just the improvisation that is needed. Often, we jump to technology as the prime solution. While technology will often solve the problem, it also can come with an extraordinary price tag. Our auto‐pilot should be reset from over‐designing a solution to instead always seeking the simplest solution.

Jugaad seems like a particularly pertinent mindset as the first half of the year draws to a close and managers prepare their quarterly budget reports. Gone are the days of throwing money at challenges; we're all called to solve problems with frugal innovation.

Do you agree? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Ellen Milnes