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How I got smarter this week (in just 105 minutes)

I am on a diet to make me smarter. A media diet. I'm trying to add at least one moment of depth per week to a movie habit that tends to play in the shallow end of the pool. This week my diet included "The Lunchbox," a film that I thought was going to be about relationships and sumptuous Indian food. Embedded therein was a fascinating lesson in business and logistics.

Yes, I know that to a fellow with a hammer, every problem is a nail. To a fellow with a business show, every movie has a lesson in business. "The Lunchbox" is a bittersweet comedy with a plot that pivots on an amazing delivery system in Mumbai, India that has been studied by Harvard researchers.

First of all, the movie: I promise, you will walk out of a viewing ravenous for South Asian food.

"The Lunchbox" is about a woman (Nimrat Kaur) who is trying to recapture the attentions of her husband by cooking and sending him fabulous lunches. The lunch gets delivered to the wrong man. The man, who starts getting the food by mistake and becomes entranced by the aromas, is played with subtle elegance by Irrfan Khan, the veteran actor who played the lead character as an older man in the Oscar-winning movie "Life of Pi."

Let's talk about that delivery service. A messenger known as a dabbawala picks up the lunch box, usually contained in a tiffen, an interlocking column of stainless steel bowls, and is surrounded by an insulating pouch. The 124-year old system for delivering the food that's grown up in Mumbai has long fascinated logistics experts. Messengers move the meals tied to bicycles. They are often stacked onto gurneys for insertion into railway carriages to be picked up by porters at the other end of the line. Many of the porters are semi-literate, yet they do interpret an alphanumeric code.

When the wife complains to the dabbawala at the door that her lunch is going to the wrong man, the deliveryman claims that is impossible because "Harvard says" their system never fails. Real-life studies show the system gets it right, on-time, with an astonishing 99.9 percent success rate. In fact, here is a 2010 case study in the Harvard Business Review.

A great meal like "The Lunchbox" in my media diet deserves a fine dessert. I was able to track down some additional short documentaries on the dabbawala delivery system and I commend one of them to you here:

It is a delivery system with a precision that would make the Post Office, FedEx, UPS and your pizza delivery professional blush with embarrassment.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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