Every day, approximately 4,000 dabbawallahs deliver 160,000 home-cooked lunches from the kitchens of suburban wives and mothers direct to Mumbai’s workers in “the world’s most ingenious meal distribution system.” (Hey UPS, how’s that for logistics?)

Dabbawallahs pick up the home cooked lunches in the suburbs, hop on trains, and deliver them, via bike, to Mumbai office workers. Later on, they pick up and bring back the same empty tiffins (the name for the metal containers used).

Despite the lack of fuel, computers, or modern technology involved, a tiffin goes astray only once every two months. So for every six million tiffins delivered, only one fails to arrive. That’s why Forbes awarded the dabbawallahs a 6 Sigma performance rating (a term used in quality assurance if the percentage of correctness is 99.9999999 or more).

The mostly illiterate crew of deliverymen relies on a color coding system to route lunches to the proper recipients.

Tiffins in the wild. (source: NY Times)

The code explained.

The dabbawallahs even deliver in the pouring rain or during political strife. And business is growing, at a steady rate of 5-10% a year.

This CBS News story says two main reasons for the success of the Dabbawalas: 1) They abandon bad customers and 2) They prize enthusiasm over experience when hiring:

Tiffin boxes
The tiffins themselves are pretty ingenious too. They consist of several stacked aluminum boxes with a carry-handle. Each container carries individual portions that separate curry dishes, bread, rice, desserts, and more.

At Squidoo, a user named Enigmaa8 lists “10 things I love about Tiffin Boxes”:

tiffin1. You can have more than one course. Tiffins come in several different compartments so you can seperate your starter, mains and dessert. Or even your breakfast from your lunch.

2. Not only does it keeps you food separate it keeps the food in its original shape. No more squashed food or bruised fruit.

3. Easy to transport with carry handle positioned at the top keeping everything upright.

4. Healthy Living. Make your own food and know what goes into it.

Want your own? Design Within Reach offers a high-end Tiffin Lunch Box Set. Or Happy Tiffin sells “earth-friendly” tiffins.