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In manufacturing and production, there is often confusion between order time, cycle time, lead time and takt time. Why is it important to know these measurements, and why should plants work to reduce them? In this post, we offer recommendations for reducing cycle time without compromising the final product or the employee experience.

What Is Cycle Time?

Cycle time is the amount of time required to produce one part, finish one product or complete one standard process. This calculable measurement conveys the fastest repeatable time in which an operator performs all steps of a standardized work process before they start over again.

Cycle time is both actual and aspirational — that is, it refers to both the average actual time it takes to complete a process and the repeatable target time one hopes to achieve. As the name suggests, cycle time accounts for all cyclical elements of work, or the repeated steps of producing each part or product. Cycle time does not account for non-cyclical work such as tool replacements, incremental cleanings, employee breaks or shift changeovers. The measurement only refers to time spent actively working on a customer order.

Likewise, cycle time does not include or account for unplanned interruptions like machine breakdowns, plant shutdowns or employee incidents or errors. Events like these would be anomalies and would not be factored into a plant’s actual or target cycle time.

Cycle time should not be confused with lead time or takt time.

Lead time: The time frame between when a plant receives an order and when the customer receives their order.

Takt time: The amount of time in which an item or service needs to be completed to meet a customer’s on-time delivery deadline.

Therefore, cycle time needs to be less than or equal to takt time to ensure the order complies with the projected lead time. Calculating your plant’s cycle time — and working to reduce it — is essential to matching your supply with customer demand in a lean operation.

How to Calculate Cycle Time

You can calculate cycle time by measuring the amount of time between the completion of one part or process and the completion of the following same part or process. 


Measure this time increment repeatedly to gain an average duration. You may also use historical data to determine how much time on average it takes to complete a task without any issues or interruptions. The resulting cycle time should reflect what your system or team can complete repeatedly without any problems.

The goal here is to find the “best” time in which a typical worker can accomplish a task on a regular basis. Don’t seek out the “best” or fastest worker in order to find a faster cycle time; likewise, don’t use the minimum measurement as your cycle time.

However, this process does acknowledge that workers are not machines. When calculating cycle time, industrial engineers will add in an allowance percentage that accounts for workers with different speeds and proficiencies, as well as the simple human fact that workers may not maintain a steady pace throughout their shift.

Important Reasons to Reduce Cycle Time

Cycle time is not about winning a race or beating your best time — it is instead one of several efficiency indicators that provide honest and measurable insight into your plant’s performance.

If you can accurately measure and achieve your optimal cycle time, you will be able to predict your company’s own profitability. Being able to generate reliable lead times and guarantee prompt order fulfillment increases your customers’ trust and perception of value in your organization.

A low — and, more importantly, reliable — cycle time is a major asset when it comes to industry competitiveness.

Benefits of Reducing Your Cycle Time

There are numerous reasons to work on reducing your cycle time without compromising safety, quality or costs.

With lower cycle times, your company can:

  • Increase productivity
  • Set realistic deadlines
  • Meet launch or delivery dates sooner
  • Guarantee lead times
  • Improve relationships with customer and distribution partners
  • Improve market value
  • Increase customer satisfaction and loyalty
  • Reduce personnel expenses
  • Optimize your team’s capacity and skills
  • Grow profit margins
  • Cut process waste
  • Minimize risk of overtime
  • Standardize work processes
  • Maintain a continuous workflow
  • Reduce unevenness in the workflow
  • Streamline inventory storage
  • Avoid overproduction

Involving all team members in reducing cycle time also legitimizes your continuous improvement efforts. If workers understand the need to follow standard processes in order to streamline production time, they are more likely to strive for optimal performance every day.

How to Improve Your Cycle Time

Reducing cycle time doesn’t require employees to work faster. Rather, it takes standardizing repeatable tasks in a process to make production time as lean as possible.

To reduce cyclical work time, consider implementing these programs:

  • Standard Work training establishes the “one best way” to accomplish each task. Here, “best” means “most efficient,” or the way that creates the least waste. Use a Time Observation Sheet to document observations when analyzing a specific task; and a Standard Work Chart to provide a simplified visual of the workspace.

Time Observation Sheet Example

Time Observation Sheet

Download Time Observation Sheet Template

Time Observation Sheet Template

Standard Work Sheet Example

Standard Work Sheet Example

Download Standard Work Sheet Template

Standard Work Sheet Template

  • TWI Job Methods (JM) provides a framework in which managers and frontline leaders can find ways to improve processes. JM encourages experimentation and innovation by breaking down jobs into their most basic components, then questioning these to eliminate unnecessary details and making the necessary details easier and safer to perform.
  • Kaizen coaches workers to make small, incremental changes each day that build up to larger, systemic changes over time. As you work to reduce cycle time, smaller changes will ensure you don’t sacrifice quality for efficiency by changing too quickly.
  • Perhaps the most essential program for frontline workers, TWI Job Instruction ensures all team members receive the same training after any process improvements are made. JI fosters consistency and sustainability, since standard training enables current employees to pass their knowledge and skills on to new hires.

There are also proven methods for reducing non-cyclical work time:

  • The SMED (Single-Minute Exchange of Die) system enables operators to complete as many steps of a process changeover as possible while the equipment is still running. SMED reduces downtime and helps prevent production delays.
  • TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) enables workers to perform routine maintenance on their own machines, which then increases the availability of the machines and decreases the need for downtime.
  • Jidoka, or autonomation, decreases the probability of defects and enables workers to utilize more nuanced and specialized skills elsewhere in the process.
  • TWI Problem Solving trains frontline supervisors and leaders to identify and act on problems instead of waiting for a manager to solve them. This empowers workers to keep the line moving and allows managers to focus on more complex issues.
  • In addition to helping reduce cycle time, TWI Job Methods (JM) can be applied to non-cyclical tasks as well. Equipment maintenance, cleaning and shift changes can all benefit from a JM approach.
  • Likewise, Kaizen can help employees experiment and iterate on improvements to non-cyclical tasks outside of production like submitting, collecting and acting on employee feedback.
  • TWI Job Instruction can also address the smallest of non-cyclical workplace tasks to improve overall efficiency and safety — for example, washing your hands in a healthcare setting.

Related Reading
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Implementing Changes Yourself

Following the recommendations above, it is possible to reduce cycle time yourself by auditing and streamlining processes. However, be aware of the common mistakes made by those who take the DIY approach:

  • Reducing cycle time is not as simple as it sounds. You may end up creating more work down the line if you attempt to make quick changes to production.
  • Lower cycle time is not a measure of efficiency if it degrades the product quality. The end customer should always be top-of-mind when making process changes. If a change does not benefit the customer — or worse, compromises their business — it’s not worth making.
  • Your team should always understand the reasons for reducing cycle time. Failing to communicate the need for changes can make them seem arbitrary and not worth striving for.
  • It can be challenging to see the bigger picture when you’re inside the problem. Without an objective view of the company, you may fail to see larger, systemic issues that are contributing to delays on the front line. This can result in treating symptoms and not the root cause.
  • When you’re trying to get your cycle time as low as possible, it can be tempting to use your fastest worker as the benchmark or aspiration. Remember that cycle time should be an average of all available, unbiased data.
  • Remember too that your workers are people. People make mistakes, work at different speeds, have unexpected setbacks and may respond poorly to managers rushing them. Establishing work standards should set the same precedent for all workers, not be used to single anyone out.

While these challenges won’t prevent you from reducing cycle time on your own, implementing changes can be easier with a partner. When successful, your efforts to improve lead time and quality assurance will be worth the higher customer satisfaction.

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Finding a Partner

Cycle time has a direct impact on key performance indicators (KPIs), including productivity, time, delivery and even employee morale. If you improve and reduce your cycle time, you will inevitably improve your KPIs.

If you think your organization could benefit from a partner with this specific expertise, consider the following questions as you research training and improvement options.

Ask yourself and your team:

  • What is the largest challenge your organization is currently facing?
  • Does your organization have detailed written processes in place and how are they used?
  • Where is your organization underperforming?
  • What would you like to have achieved a year from today?
  • Which leaders at your organization need training?
  • What is your employee turnover rate?
  • How long does it take you to bring skilled labor up to speed?
  • What do your employees or supervisors struggle with the most?

Ask your training partner candidates:

  • Have you worked with an organization like ours before?
  • How do you ensure the sustainability of your approach?
  • How does this program keep employees engaged?
  • How does your team address worker resistance?

Chances are, you would be reaching out to a training partner because you need to see concrete results. Experienced trainers should be able to provide evidence that their methods reduce cycle time, and also that their approach can be customized for your organization’s unique needs.

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FAQs: Reducing Cycle Times

Q: Why do I need to reduce cycle time? 

Reducing cycle time leads to better productivity, streamlined processes, cost savings, happier customers and a competitive edge in your market. Organizations that can guarantee fast cycle times — and short lead times as a result — will gain and keep customers’ trust and be more attractive to talented job candidates.

Q: What is the difference between cycle time and lead time? 

Lead time is the time frame between when a plant receives an order and when the customer receives their order. Cycle time, which is shorter than lead time, is the amount of time required to produce one part, finish one product or complete one standard process.

Q: How do I measure cycle time? 

You can calculate cycle time by measuring the amount of time between the completion of one part or process and the completion of the following same part or process.

Q: How do I calculate takt time? 

Takt time is the amount of time in which an item or service needs to be completed to meet a customer’s on-time delivery deadline, which is different from cycle time or lead time. Takt time is determined using the following calculation:

Total Available Production Time
_________________________               = Takt Time
Average Customer Demand

The “total available production time” should exclude any employee breaks, shift changes, scheduled maintenance or other interruption to time spent actively producing goods or services. The “average customer demand” is the volume of new orders during that time period.

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