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What is Cycle Time?

Updated: Jun 24

Cycle Time is the total elapsed time it takes a work item to travel from one point of your workflow (a start point) to another point (the finish point). This means that, depending on how you define start and finish for your context, you can measure the Cycle Time for a whole process or just a portion of it.

Calculating Cycle Time

Cycle Time is often expressed as:

(Finish TU – Start TU) + 1 

TU stands for Time Unit. You can use any granularity you'd like: seconds, minutes, hours, days or more. Why do we add 1? By adding one, this allows us to include both the start and the finish time unit in the Cycle Time so no time is left out.

Cycle time is the total elapsed time it took from start to finish. This means it includes active working time as well any time that a work item is sitting there idle. So, whether work is waiting on someone, you’re blocked by a technical issue, or being interrupted by evenings and weekends, the time is included in an item’s Cycle Time.

Work time and wait time

Sometimes teams visualize work time and wait time. It is all included in Cycle Time.

partial workflow on a Kanban board

Cycle Time cannot be calculated for a work item until it has reached your designated finish point. This means it is a lagging metric – one based on historical data.

It is best to speak in the terms of your customer. They think in calendar days and not business days so we calculate cycle time in calendar days and not business days. It reduces misunderstandings. It's not inflating the metric, its reality. Julia Wester, Co-Founder @ 55 Degrees AB

Why measure Cycle Time?

Cycle Time is one of the four basic flow metrics, along with Throughput, WIP, and Work Item Age. These four flow metrics are baselines metrics that give you some insight into the underlying flow health of a process.

Looking at Cycle Times helps us understand how predictably we deliver individual work items. If your process generates a wider range of Cycle Time data now than it did in the past then, objectively, you could say that your process has become less predictable than it used to be.

By looking at how long it took you to finish a given percentage of items historically, you can get an idea of how long it may take you to deliver an item in the future - assuming your process hasn't significantly changed. This is best seen on a Cycle Time Scatterplot.

Cycle Time Scatterplot in ActionableAgile
Cycle Time Scatterplot chart from ActionableAgile Analytics

Quickly looking at a Cycle Time Scatterplot chart above, in which each dot represents the Cycle Time of a given work item, we can easily say that we finish 95% of these work items in 23 days or less. This type of forecasting is reliable and extremely quick, allowing us to spend time on what’s truly valuable – doing the actual work.

A great metric to start with

Cycle Time is often the first flow metric that teams attempt and it is very easy to track — even by hand! All you need is to write down the start date and the end date of a work item and you can calculate cycle time. You can even make your own charts!


Interested in tracking flow metrics like Cycle Time? Try out ActionableAgile for free today!

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