categories: church, customer service
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April 12th, 2007

by Bobby Gruenewald

8 comments (+ Add)

Learning from the Dabbawalla

DabbawallaSeth Godin talks about the secret of the Dabbawalla on his blog.
The Dabbawalla have been delivering freshly prepared lunches from homes in little boxes to office workers each day in Mumbai, India for over a century.
Seth points out an amazing statistic about this service. They are reported to have a delivery error rate of about one in six million!

He goes on to ask “How is this possible? How do you create and run a service with thousands of employees, no technology and a poorly-educated workforce and have better than six sigma quality?”

His answer….”Simple: the dabbawallas know their customers. If they rotated the people around, it would never work. There’s trust, and along with the trust is responsibility. By creating a flat organization and building relationships, the system even survives monsoon season.”

How could this apply to our volunteer organization? Different from what Seth says about the Dabbawalla, we have a lot of well educated/bright people…quite a bit of technology (email, cell phones, etc).

Here are some of the questions this leads me to think about (not sure if they are the right questions though)…

Do volunteers know exactly what the responsibility is?
- do they know who they are serving (their customer)?
- do they know the needs of that customer?

Are volunteers the relational “front” of the church or are we directing that to staff?
- if volunteers are that front…how critical is their longevity (or lack of it) to the system?

Are they trusted to execute, or do we require layers of supervision?
- do we spend staff energy not trusting volunteers?

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  1. Apr 12, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    Using volunteers can be tricky. In my research on how ministries implement their web sites, I have found that, for the most part, paid staff seems to work best. However, one church here in SoCal is able to do very well with volunteers. See my post on this for more detail:


  2. Apr 12, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    You make a great point by asking, “Do we spend staff energy not trusting volunteers?”

    I think too many times we just utilize the right people in wrong places.

    I’m curious what the process is at other churches in pairing volunteers with ministries, where they clearly understand the vision, purpose and “customer”.

  3. 3Steve Waite
    Apr 12, 2007 at 1:23 pm


    Great post! I am also fascinated with the Dabbawalla. I’ve long believed that knowing your customers is vital to running a successful business operation. I’m often struck by how little companies know or care to know about their customers.

    I don’t have all of the answers to your questions at the moment, but it seems to me that the role of volunteers should be restricted and clearly defined because there is little incentive for them to know your customers. I would tend to view volunteers as “potential employees in training,” and as such, seek to give them guidance like you would newly hired employees. Perhaps volunteers could become for the equivalent of a minor league farm club in baseball or hockey - that is, a source of future talent?

    Having spent the last couple of months visiting various churches in Second Life, I was intrigued with the thought of using SL as a training ground for young ministers in RL. One could also think about using SL as a training ground for newly hired employees in RL. I need to think more deeply about this concept, but on the surface it has some appeal.

    Keep up the terrific work! :)


  4. Apr 12, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    I read this on Seth’s blog the other day and posed similar questions to our staff. We have more tools and resources, but often fail to make any connection or build relationships with our customers.

    I don’t think it really matters how educated you are or how much technology is available if you don’t have clearly defined roles, set expectations – and hold people accountable (feedback). These are universal – and that includes volunteers.

    Sounds harsh. After all, they are volunteering their time. But, your volunteers come from all walks of life. They will each bring their own experiences and biases into their role. Assuming they understand the concept of “customer? is a recipe for failure. Training and supervision are a must to get the outcome you desire.

    Training is also the time to ensure you have the right people in the right spots (like Gary said). The wrong people can do a lot of damage and miss a lot of opportunities.

    I think that those who are truly interested in “serving? others would welcome this.

  5. Apr 12, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    Beware of the lollipop of mediocrity; lick it once and you’ll suck forever.

    Volunteers are a needed resource but you can’t screw up customer touches…if they have no idea of the purpose and the process of which they are a part of, then mediocrity is inevitable.

    “Know that new people will form an impression of God and your church based on what they see and hear”…Simple Church

  6. Apr 13, 2007 at 9:34 am

    Right on, Scott. It is essential that volunteers learn to “own” their ministry, just as if they were a staff member.

    Since we started attending LifeChurch I have been amazed by the quality of the volunteers. You know your volunteers are awesome when visitors to your church don’t know who’s paid and who’s not.

  7. 7Steve
    Apr 13, 2007 at 8:07 pm

    There is not really a volunteer perspective here yet. I have been a church volunteer for more than 20 years. I started small, but over the years grew into more responsibility. Eventually became a volunteer leader, serving in what would normally be a paid staff member’s position.

    I was able to build great relationships with the people I was leading and the best part was watching them grow. Not all of them stayed a long time, but God was always faithful and provided growth or replacement people in his own time.

    All this to say that most of my biggest frustrations through the years were generated by paid staff people. Most of them had a dedication level far below that of volunteers. They were serving as part of their jobs, while we had already worked a full day at our regular jobs and were working solely for the kingdom. Sometimes they seemed intent on sabotaging with some seemingly silly ideas that had no effect on the quality of our product. It seemed like they messed with us just because they could. A lot of my energy was spent shielding my team from the politics around us.

    So from my point of view, paid staff definitely limited our effectiveness as kingdom volunteers.

  8. 8Jim Schroeder
    Apr 14, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    Like Steve, I have been a volunteer for many years. Not quite 20, but pretty close. I agree with what Steve has seen in volunteers and paid staff. Often, volunteers are working out of their heart, because it is the right thing to do, and for their love of the Church and the un-Churched. Often I’ve seen staff treating it just like a job, like I treat my 9-5.
    One thing I would as a volunteer…I have come to see this as my Church. This is my home. So just like I want people to feel comfortable in my home, I want them to feel comfortable here. I will do whatever I can to make that happen.
    Maybe it is wrong, but I often look at the Staff as working for Me. I am here to server, and they are here to help me do that. Many times, like Steve, I would have to say I’ve run into road blocks. Too often I see Staff towing the company line rather than thinking outside the box and willing to do something different. I feel as a volunteer, I am often able to do things and get away with things paid staff can’t, perhaps because they are worried about their job/paycheck. Based on my experience, I would say I never want to be paid staff and would much rather give my time in service to God in whatever way possible w/o any compensation.
    I think the lesson from the Dabbawalla is in the commitment and excellence people will put towards a job when they feel it is personal. If I don’t deliver lunch to Joe, then my friend Joe will go hungry.