The Hidden X-Factor for Exemplary Performance

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On November 4, 2003, Prince Charles paid a visit to the famed Dabbawalas in Mumbai to witness for himself how these 5,000 semi-literate lunchbox delivery boys are able to deliver such an incredible performance, distributing a staggering 200,000 lunchboxes a day, 6 days a week, producing 1 defect in 6 million deliveries, according to Forbes. And they have been at it since 1890!

A couple of them attended Prince Charles’ wedding in London in 2005.

CBS, BBC, and several other media organizations have covered their story, and reputed educational institutions have sent their students to Mumbai to study Dabbawalas’ operations to learn how Dabbawalas are able to produce such performance in the hope of replicating it at home but to no avail. A number of celebrities, too, have paid the Dabbawalas a visit.

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A day later, on November 5th, I was invited by BBC Radio 5 Wake up to Money Program to explain to their listeners how Dabbawalas are able to produce such great performance. I admiringly explained to the listeners how six sigma allowed Dabbawalas to deliver such performance. And the economic Times published my interview, Six Sigma Could Change the World on September 18, 2009.

It turns out that my enthusiasm for six sigma was only partly justified. It is true that six sigma like strategies can deliver good performance, but that is not the complete story.

After all, some 80% of Fortune 100 companies and 50% of Fortune 500 companies in America have six sigma programs in place to some extent according to American Society for Quality, but it is doubtful if any of them can compete with the Dabbawalas.

So, what gives?

On March 3, 2013, I was sitting in the Business Class Lounge of British Airways Terminal 5, C Gates, at London’s Heathrow Airport to catch for my return flight to the United States. I had just completed teaching the two-week six sigma class of the MBA program of the University of Kentucky at TEI/Piraeus in Athens, Greece.  Having my favorite breakfast of tea and toast, my attention was drawn to the article, “Kumbh Mela’s Pop up Megacity is a Lesson in Logistics for India” in the weekend edition of the Financial Times. I wondered why a columnist from a business newspaper like the Financial Times should be interested in a religious festival like Kumbh Mela.

In the article, columnist Victor Mallet described the Kumbh Mela, which occurs every twelve years. The Kumbh has a temporary tent city constructed to house tens of millions of devotees who visit the festival. Mallet marveled at the exemplary performance in the tent city in terms of roads, electricity, water supply, food services, sanitation services, etc., but was puzzled why India couldn’t replicate such performance in the rest of the country. If they did, India would be a developed nation in no time.

Temporary tents provided for devotees during the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad

I could immediately grasp the X factor for this exemplary performance: High level of emotional excellence on the part of millions of devotees and the staff associated with the tent city. I fondly refer to this discovery as my Eureka moment.

And then I realized that the same must be true with Dabbawalas.

I visited the Dabbawalas in 2019, when I could validate my hypothesis. Dabbawalas are all Varkaris (pilgrims) who travel a distance of 200 km on foot every year from one set of temple towns to another. The high level of their emotional excellence was abundantly clear.

We will give that food to the hungry .

The discovery may be formally stated as follows:

In the absence of an adequate level of emotional excellence, the best of the best quality initiatives, including six sigma, cannot deliver the best possible performance. Boost emotional excellence and the performance will zoom.

We have signed an MOU with the Dabbawalas to explain to the world how exemplary performance becomes possible and how it can be achieved. See this article, Disruptive Innovation, on their website.

Businesses are generally unaware of the link of emotional excellence to the performance in the external world.

The group of people associated with the Kumbh and the Dabbawalas naturally possess the feelings of Bhakti, Shraddha, Vishwas, and Samarpan (devotion, faith, trust, and surrender).

These feelings may not come naturally to everyone. Meditation is a pathway to enhance emotional excellence for the rest of us.

This, in a nutshell, is what Yogananda Paramahansa was trying to convey in his speech just before he died on March 7, 1952: Combine the strategies for external excellence, such as six sigma, (This is what makes America efficient) with the practices of emotional excellence, (India is the ancient home of spirituality), for a better and more peaceful world.

The implications of this discovery for businesses and nations are profound. Among the myriad of other benefits emotional excellence delivers are health and wellness, innovation and creativity, interpersonal skills, and less discord and violence.

Additional details are available in my 2019 article, The Secret of Exemplary Performance, BizEd (now called Insights). Insights is a publication of AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), the body that accredits Business School Curricula in the United States.

I included these ideas in the six sigma class of the University of Kentucky’s MBA program at TEI/Piraeus in Athens, Greece that I taught for twelve years and their annual feedback has been heartwarming.


This article is written with the blessings of H. H. Guru Mahan, Founder, Universal Peace Foundation, Thirumurthi Hills, TN, India. Guru Mahan has been going into three weeks of meditation with no food for the past thirty-two years for global peace.  In 2015, Guru Mahan and I conducted a joint session, “Enhancing the Quality of Business through Internal Excellence” in Coimbatore, India.

The author also thanks Tony Belak, former Ombudsman, University of Louisville for his feedback and editorial assistance.

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