Guest AuthorPrabodh Sirur

Mumbai Dabbawalas and Seattle Fishmongers

By | Prabodh Sirur | In search of Postitive Intranets at In search of Positive Intranets

Both these entities are famous; the dabbawalas are famous for their six sigma delivery and the fishmongers are famous for their amazing customer experience.

I have had the fortune of getting served by the Mumbai dabbawalas for two decades and of working with the Seattle fishmongers.

Let me share with you my experience with both of them.


The Mumbai Dabbawalas are a lunchbox courier service. They are operational since 1890. They serve about 200,000 customers a day.

How the Mumbai Dabbawalas operate

A dabbawala picks up the dabba (lunchbox) from the customer’s residence at a pre-decided time and reaches it to the local railway station. The whole chain of activities works like a clockwork.

All dabbas are sorted based on the destination coding painted on the top of the box and put in appropriate trains. At each railway station the offloaded dabbas are again sorted based on the destination location. The last mile delivery men pick up their lot and deliver the dabba at the customer’s office at lunch time. When the customer finishes his/her lunch, the dabba travels back to the residence. The whole chain of delivery changes hands at least six times each way.

They never miss the routine; and never do they courier the dabbas to a wrong address. Their service accuracy is certified as six sigma (i.e. less than one error in 16 million deliveries).

They have never had a strike, there is no attrition in the last 120 plus years and they do not have retirement age. Their organisation is a cooperative i.e. all are members and not employees. Every member has to deliver dabbas whether the person is the Chairman of their organisation or the junior most guy.

Any deviation from the routine is a strict no-no. Some rules (such as non-smoking at work, absence without notice etc.) are non-negotiable.

My experience with the Dabbawalas

The dabbawalas have served me for two decades. I was always fascinated by them. I would travel with them in the local train once in a while in the special luggage coach. Their routine was the same all through. As soon as the train started from the starting point, they would garland each other and fold their hands in a namaste. This ritual is to to show respect to the God within one another. Then they would apply tilak (dot of sandalwood paste on the forehead), which is an expression of honouring one another. After this, they all sang Abhangs (devotional songs of the Vaarkari sect) throughout the journey.

They all come from villages around Pune. They follow a religious sect called Vaarkari. This common religious belief is the bond that binds them all with a common belief to see god in every human being.

Some amazing stories about the Dabbawalas

They regularly conduct motivational workshops for senior managers from the corporate world.

Once Richard Branson carried a dabba for one of his employees and travelled with other dabbawalas to reach it to his dumbfounded employee.

Prince Charles, during his visit to India, wanted to meet the Mumbai dabbawalas. He had to plan the visit at Churchgate railway platform during 11-20 am and 11-40 am because this is the time when the dabbawalas are free. He was so fascinated by their passion for timely service, that he even invited them for his wedding.


The Seattle fishmongers are employees of a fish shop called The Pike Place Fish Market. This small shop is in existence since 1930 but the real turnaround for them happened only since the 80s when John Yokoyama, son of a Japanese hawker, bought the shop. His vision made his people different.

Just one visit to the shop will keep you vibrant and happy throughout the day.

How the Seattle Fishmongers operate

These fishmongers excel in the art of customer experience, unlike the Dabbawalas who excel in timeliness but hardly have time to speak to the customer.

The fishmongers call themselves – The World Famous Fishmongers. Their sole aim is to create world famous experience to every human they touch. They hug the customers, they talk to the children accompanying the customers, they do lot of drama throughout the day entertaining the customers.

My experience with the Seattle Fishmongers

They start their daily tasks at 6-30 am. The first thing they do is a huddle where they talk about their company’s vision and then one of them shares a story about the values of their company. They end the huddle after this daily ritual and start setting up the shop.

All the tasks are done exactly as per their work instructions till 8 am. The last thing they do is put the “We are the world famous fishmongers” placards on each section and all of them give a loud victory cry for completing their first task of their day. The whole day is full of pranks where they entertain their customers.

When you speak to any one of them, you will feel you are talking to a philosopher. So much is the training drilled into them. Their common belief that they exist to create a world famous difference to every human being they touch is the bond that holds them together.

Throughout the day, at least 10,000 tourists come to watch their pranks. It is fun watching them throw fish from one to the other.

Some amazing stories about the Fishmongers

Their story is converted into a full fledged training program about how to bring vibrancy in an organisation.

Their whole work philosophy is documented in a book called Fish Philosophy (more than 5 million copies sold).

Some of these fish-throwers have appeared in a movie called Free Willy.

They conduct workshops for large corporations such as Ford and Shell.

What is common between the Dabbawalas and the Fishmongers?

Both have great pride in their work and about their organisation.

Both have highly process oriented, almost ritualistic workday. Their work ethics are of real high standards.

There are some really non-negotiable rules e.g. a fishmonger would be sacked on-the-spot if he turns his back to the customer.

Both have very strong bond that connects them to each other.


What is the least that we could learn from them?

  • Company vision, philosophy and culture has to be the strong binding force to bring everyone closer. Everyone from the top to the bottom must live these in letter and spirit.
  • The work process at the lowest level has to be executed like a ritual to make a uniform impact.
  • There are some non-negotiable expected behaviours. You just can not break these rules.
  • Work is a joy; work is serving the God.

Who is accountable to implement all this? In these two organisations, everyone. What about your organisation?

Republished with permission and originally published at Prabodh Sirur’s Linkedin

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