Service Excellence: Insights from a (very) low cost high value model

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Technology more so than any other factor dominates headlines when it comes to issues affecting service quality; as in this article in the Financial Times about virtual money. But as any service provider knows technology is a poor panacea at best for service ills considering its flaws such as a tendency to minimize touchpoints and technical breakdowns in the service process.

The November issue of the Harvard Business Review provides an elucidation of a remarkable service provider that is set in an astonishingly non-technical past but yet offers compelling insights to latter day service providers including airlines and hotels, the Mumbai Dabbawala (lunch-box carrier). They deliver lunch boxes at remarkably low costs of about $7 per month from kitchen to office across the sprawling Bombay metropolis.

HBR notes that the over 120 year old Dabbawala industry is “legendary for its reliability and is premised on four pillars: organization, management, process, and culture. More tellingly, they are “perfectly aligned and mutually reinforcing.
In the corporate world, it’s uncommon for managers to strive for that
kind of synergy. While most, if not all, pay attention to some of the
pillars, only a minority address all four.”

One key to their superior organization is the presence of small groups each having a high degree of local autonomy. In terms of management the Harvard publication notes that each dabbawala while a link in a seemingly complex matrix “is an entrepreneur” with all, nevertheless, functioning as in a co-operative.

The most striking of their four pillars is their process which exemplifies simplicity and flexibility while still being rigorous. The lunch boxes do not bear any addresses but have numerical codes that translate into which train station the boxes are to be loaded on to as well as for the office building it is to be delivered to. 

As HBR points out “this insight is applicable in many other contexts. People operate in a visual world. Whether you run an airline, hotels, or a university, how and what information is conveyed can make a huge difference. Less is often more because it can reduce confusion. Delta Air Lines recently redesigned its boarding passes to make them less
cluttered and to highlight key information such as the destination city.” Another valuable insight: the Dabbawalas have a tiny margin of error for tasks largely constrained by time so all members are cross-trained; an idea Marriott Hotels, among others,  embraces with its front-desk staff who in some instances double as bell-hops.

The fourth pillar, culture, appears peculiar to the Dabbawalas and not easily translatable across companies much less countries and owes their success to their homogeneity. Nevertheless, they offer a pathway for others by emulating their passion: “a devotion to their simple mission”.

A recent article in the The Wall Street Journal offers an example of a US entrepreneur, who flowed seemingly against the tide by successfully developing the luxury end of the travel agent business. A closer look at the business model of the company, Travel Leaders, reveals aspects of the four pillars that underpin the Dabbawalas.  In particular the autonomy enjoyed by the lunch-box carriers, once trained, is shared by Travel Leaders independent 28,000+ work-at-home franchisees.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Vijay Dandapani
Since August 1993, Vijay Dandapani, the President and Chief Operating Officer of Apple Core Hotels, has been instrumental in the company's growth and development, including acquisitions, six hotel renovations and the implementation of state-of-the-art computer systems. A hotel industry veteran, Dandapani, is also a member of the Board of Directors for the following associations: Hotel Association of New York City, NYC & Company, NYSHTA (New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association), and the International Hotel Motel & Restaurant Show at Javits.

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