Do good business practices translate from one country to another? Professors in the United States think so, and regularly use non-American examples in their coursework. For example:

  • Harvard professors studied the successful rescue of 33 Chilean mine workers in 2010 and found that minimal hierarchy allowed teams of experts to share, design and test their ideas to quickly find a solution.
  • A Massachusetts Institute of Technology case study shows how Seven-Eleven convenience stores in Japan track purchases to optimize inventory and anticipate customer preferences based on factors like the weather or time of day.

Learning from the legendary dabbawala

But among case studies taught in U.S. business schools, perhaps the most popular involves a group of 5,000 workers in Mumbai known as dabbawalas, people who deliver home-cooked lunches to office workers. Each week, dabbawalas deliver close to a million lunches, rarely making an error.

Dabbawalas boarding a train, part of their good business practices
Dabbawalas, or lunchbox delivery men, board a local train on their way to deliver lunches to office staff in Mumbai, India. (AP Images)

Since 1890, the dabbawalas have also become legendary for their dedication, delivering lunches during monsoons and conflicts. Remarkably, they don’t rely on mobile phones or information-technology systems to guide their deliveries, but rather on a simple coding system of numbers and colors that results in enviable precision. “I’ve known people who have had their lunch delivered to them for 10 or 20 years, and they say they’ve never missed a lunch,” says Stefan Thomke of Harvard Business School.

Cracking the Code

lunch _vert

Each lunchbox is coded to indicate the dabbawala, the lunchbox he will deliver and the train he will take.


A color symbol and number show the originating station of the lunchbox and the district it will go to.


The first number indicates the dabbawala who will make the delivery. Letters show the building the lunchbox is destined for. A final number indicates the floor.

The delivery system is a near-perfect harmony of organization, management, process and culture, allowing workers to achieve exceptional results with minimal resources.

“[My senior executive students] find this case so inspirational because of what the dabbawalas achieve,” Thomke said. “It’s relevant to them because being able to get extraordinary performances out of employees is a puzzle they all struggle with.”

Although it helps to have a degree from a prestigious school, you don’t need to go to Harvard to learn more about running a business.  Free massive open online courses (MOOCs) now let you learn from top American schools without leaving home.

Free online courses include operations management at the University of Pennsylvania and the foundations of business strategy from the University of Virginia. Or get an introduction to entrepreneurship as a means to tackling health care issues with Harvard University. No matter what your interest in the field of business, companies like Coursera are bringing the classroom to you.