Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Sometimes the Secret is Effort

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I was recently accepted into the University of Illinois’ iMBA program, which offers students the opportunity to earn an accredited MBA degree in a fully online setting. I’m currently in my fifth class, but have supplemented my reading with studies and articles on business topics outside of the required reading. As you might imagine, process measurement and management come up frequently; references to Lean, Six Sigma, and other methodologies abound in the literature.

These frameworks use precise measurements to analyze the defect rate, or the rate at which failures occur. Those defects could be missed deliveries, flights arriving more than fifteen minutes late, or products failing within the standard warranty period. Analysts spend hundreds of hours examining processes in an attempt to squeeze a bit more productivity out of the system, whether by reducing the number of movements autoworkers make when attaching a door to a frame, picking items from warehouse bins, or building algorithms to limit the number of miles traveled by delivery vehicles.

Even though these analytical methods have led to substantial process improvements, there is a lot to be said for the empirical knowledge you gain from working within a system. Long-time workers have often developed their own efficiencies (management-speak for shortcuts) they share with their co-workers out of earshot of their supervisors so they don’t get in trouble for deviating from protocol. One prominent example of applied empirical knowledge is the dabbawalas, or tiffinwalas, who deliver hot lunches in Mumbai, India. Customers who want home-cooked meals at work often can’t bring their own food because the trains are too crowded for the containers or because their water supply isn’t available in time for cooking in the morning. Rather than eat at the company canteen, they order their meals from cooks around town. The meals are picked up and delivered by the dabbawalas through an intricate system of hand-offs that uses trains, buses, carts, bikes, and human muscle to get the aluminum lunch containers (the tiffins) to their destination on time.

The dabbawalas’ marking system uses color and single characters to distinguish district, neighborhood, building, and floor, in part because most of the dabbawalas left school after their eighth year. Transfers happen quickly and with minimal errors. As a testament to the strength of their system, consider that a process is considered Six Sigma certifiable if its defect rate is less than 34 out of 1,000,000 opportunities. The dabbawalas’ miss a delivery target at a rate of 1 out of 6,000,000 opportunities. That’s astonishing. And, yes, the dabbawalas are Six Sigma certified, but they didn’t find out about the award until a couple of years after it happened!

To what may we attribute their success? Their system is amazing and has been the subject of numerous studies, but remember how the tiffins are delivered. Once the containers come off their final train ride, they’re transported by humans on bikes, carts, and the traditional method of grabbing a bunch of lunch pail handles and lugging them up several flights of stairs. And the walas work hard. When you watch one of the YouTube videos showing the process in action, you can’t help but notice the focus, determination, and sheer effort required to move the tiffins on and off trains, sort them accurately, and get them to their destination on time.

Less than 100 years ago, my grandparents worked in a shoe factory without the benefit of union protection. Steelworkers, pipefitters, plumbers, and construction workers work hard and for long hours at difficult jobs today. Along with the tradesmen and women who drive our economy forward, the dabbawalas reinforce the universal truth that the best system is worthless if you’re not willing to make the effort required for success.

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