Customer is God, Work is Worship


“Customer is God, Work is Worship”


Like most people, I have a preference for spending my time in clean, comfortable spaces and usually somewhere quiet. I don’t especially enjoy being on a noisy crowded train, or in a lengthy queue at the supermarket. So why is it that I felt so drawn to the chaotic, noisy, polluted, crowded space that is Mumbai?

pic2I was recently invited to attend the Sigma Pharmaceuticals plc conference in Mumbai and jumped at the opportunity to re-connect with my pharmacy roots and to visit India, a place high on my bucket list.

I arrived on Valentine’s Day, and as the plane approached the runway at Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport and I looked out over the slum dwellings, the homes of millions of people, I knew instantly that I’d fallen for that crazy place. 20 million people….. say it slowly, twenty million! All squashed into a space only half the size of Greater Manchester. London feels pretty crowded but Mumbai is twenty times more crowded, being home to a whopping 30,000 people per sq kilometre. It’s unreal. People, quite literally, live on top of one another.

As I learned about the city it began to dawn on me that this place was going to teach me some lessons. For a city which is so densely populated to function well requires some effective systems. Those who know me know that I love a good system and so, naturally, I was keen to learn about two that Mumbai has to offer; The Dhobi Ghat and the dabbawalas.

pic4The Dhobi Ghat laundry was established in 1890. Here up to 10,000 Dhobis, or laundry men, work in teams to get the city folks’ clothing and the hotels’ and hospitals’ bed linen and uniforms clean. Dhobis work in teams of about 20, each with their specific tasks. Dirty laundry is collected from customers and carried in huge bundles on their backs, or in handcarts to the Dhobi Ghat. Laundry is marked with indelible ink using symbols that identify the dhobi (who are usually illiterate) and their customer before being sorted into colours. Dhobis stand in about 1000 concrete washtubs, or ghats, up to their knees in soapy water to wash the clothes and linen by hand (and foot).  After washing stubborn stains are removed with caustic soda and starched if necessary in further ghats. There are no spin dryer facilities so the linen is repeatedly flogged against a stone to remove as much water as possible and then hung to dry on twisted rope- no pegs. The dried washing is then ironed using charcoal irons, folded and sorted to be returned to the customers. It’s estimated that about quarter of a million items are processed each day in this way and surprisingly none of the clothes are ever misplaced or exchanged with someone else’s. The processes are simple but the volume and efficiency are astounding.

And this chap with his bike? Well he’s a tiffin carrier or a dabbawala. These guys (and a handful of women) form a 130 year old networked delivery system to carry home-made lunches, made by the women of Mumbai, to their husbands working in the Mumbai offices. At around 8 in the morning approximately 200,000 tiffins are collected from homes across the conurbation by around 5000 dabbawallas. They are taken to sorting locations and organised into batches depending on their destination along the Mumbai rail network. The sorted batches are then carried on crates and transported by train to the business districts of the city. Again they are sorted and transported and further sorted and transported until eventually each tiffin carrier is charged with 20-40 tiffins to deliver to a group of neighbouring offices, usually using a push bike like this chap. An hour and a half later, and after a 20 minute lunch break to eat their own lunch, the whole process is started in reverse to deliver the tiffins home. Most dabbawala are illiterate but they memorise a complex coding system developed from numbers, letters and colours which define the start and end address for each tiffin along with the station codes for the stages of the journey.

Tiffin carriers are part of the city’s infrastructure. They are highly trusted and it’s not unusual, I was told, for men to send their weekly wages home in the tiffin believing it to be safer than carrying cash on their commute home. Dabbawalas, all self- employed, operate to a code of conduct that includes a commitment to not undercut one another. They wear uniform including the coveted hat and carry ID. Working in teams of about 20-30 people, they all take equal wages regardless of how many customers they serve and the eldest person in the team is nominated the team leader or mukadam. Other than the mukadams and the executive team, the whole organisation is entirely without hierarchy. How’s that for equality?

pic5Being a tiffin carrier is a responsible job and you can see the pride on this chap’s face. Being on time and delivering the right tiffin to each worker and back to the correct home is essential and they are known for their remarkable accuracy, boasting an error rate of only 1 in 16million transactions. How? Why? What makes it so? Well I wonder of it has something to do with culture. Their motto is “Customer is God; Work is worship” what a way to define your organisations’ culture.





These two Mumbai systems have several things in common. Most obvious is how the workers co-operate and collaborate, each doing their bit perfectly and enhancing the efficiency of the whole. It struck me that in health, regardless of our profession or role, we’re usually very good at doing our bit well. But how good are we at collaborating with others to ensure the whole process is the best it can be? Do we really keep our eye on the whole patient experience and truly understand the contribution that our bit plays to enhance the whole? What might you do differently, more of or less of, if you were to focus on the whole rather than just your bit?

My second observation was the pride that these folk have in their service and the way each person takes responsibility for anything that’s not quite right. For example the dabbawalas will make temporary markings using whatever tools they can access to replace the codes on tiffins until they can be properly re-coded. It wouldn’t do for a tiffin to get lost, even if it belongs to the customer of another dabbawala. The focus on quality for the customer is unerring.

What would it mean for your service if you collaborated like the dhobis and dabbawalas? And if you adopted the dabbawalla motto, how would your service change? …. customer is god, work is worship.