The one question that project managers hate to hear – “How long will this take?”.

Being able to estimate how much time is needed for a team using the Kanban method to complete a client request lets project managers plan ahead and inspires client confidence. Kanban cycle time tracks the average time taken and the probability to complete any type of task within a project.

While cycle time can be used to assess your team’s efficiency, it can also be used to predict future task performance. Cycle time scatterplots are a great visual method to estimate task times and quickly spot problem areas. Reducing your cycle times means higher team productivity, faster delivery, increased customer satisfaction.

Kanban cycle time vs lead time

Kanban cycle time lead time

Kanban lead time is the time between a request being made and a task being released. It’s the total time the client is waiting for a task to be delivered. Lead time is frequently used by Kanban teams to evaluate customer satisfaction.

Kanban cycle time is calculating the actual work-in-progress time. It tracks how long a task stays in the different process stages. Keeping track of your cycle times enables you to measure your team performance. Low cycle times mean that your team is efficient. High cycle times indicate stalls, bottlenecks, and backlogs. Keeping cycle times down keeps lead time down – and fast lead times mean high customer satisfaction.

Cycle time scatterplot

Cycle Time Scatterplot

The horizontal axis represents a period of time. Tasks completed in this period appear on the cycle time scatterplot.

Each of the dots scattered across the graph represents a single task from your Kanban board. Тhe positions of the dots are determined by the date of completion. The vertical axis represents cycle time in days – the vertical position of each dot is determined by the number of days taken for the card to be delivered.

The dotted horizontal lines crossing the plot are called percentile lines. The line labeled with 50% signifies that half of the tasks have been completed within the corresponding number of days. A higher percentile means a greater chance of completing any type of assignment within a certain time frame.

Cycle time scatterplots are used to track team performance and define service level agreements by forecasting the cycle time on future assignments.

Measure cycle time

Kanban cycle time is the total amount of elapsed time between when a task starts and when a task finishes. Where a dot appears on the scatterplot shows the cycle time for that task. Tasks clustered along the bottom axis were completed quickly, while the higher a dot appears, the longer it took to complete. Using cycle time scatterplot you can easily compare how tasks of different type perform.

Track team performance using cycle time

Cycle time indicates how fast individual tasks on your Kanban board are being completed. Low cycle times mean that your team is performing well. By keeping performance high and cycle times down your team delivers results faster which means more happy customers.

Predict task completion time using cycle time scatterplots

Historical data can be used to predict future task performance and give accurate data-driven estimates to clients. Kanban teams use cycle time scatterplot percentiles as the most accurate approach to predict how much time a task will take.

Using the horizontal percentile lines, we can see that there is a 50% chance that any type of task will be completed within 8 days, and a 95% chance it will be completed within 72 days. The higher the percentile, the more likely that any assignment will be completed within that specific time frame.

How to improve your cycle time

Reducing your cycle times results in improved team efficiency and higher customer satisfaction. The key to keeping Kanban cycle time down is applying a limit on your work in progress. Think about it – are you faster when you give 100% to just one task, or when your focus is pulled in different directions?

The relationship between the three main Kanban metrics – cycle time, throughput, and WIP – is described by Little’s Law. This formula applies to stable systems following Little’s Law assumptions. WIP limits enforce this by not allowing new tasks to be started before an outstanding task is finished.

Cycle Time = WIP/Throughput

Little’s Law states that changing one of the three metrics will have an effect on one or both of the others. For example, for cycle time to come down, WIP must decrease. WIP limits can be changed without making any drastic changes to your team. Little’s Law can be used to select optimal work in progress limits.

By allowing your team to focus on just a few tasks and keeping priorities in order, stalled, half-finished tasks are not likely to pile up. Kanban cycle time scatterplot lets you quickly spot any impediments by analyzing tasks that have much longer cycle time than the rest. Learn more about the most common cycle time scatterplot patterns to easily identify bottlenecks in your process. Once identified, you can begin to tackle the root cause of any delays. Try it and see!

Has analyzing your progress helped you spot any bottlenecks? How do you keep track of your team’s cycle times? What steps have you taken to reduce your cycle times?  Tell us about your experience in the comments.

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