So you’ve been using a Kanban board to manage project delivery across your team. Your team is visualizing its work on the board, and truly relies on the board as its primary way to track and manage its work. You hold frequent standups to discuss all work on the board, and work together to complete cards as quickly as possible. You’re thrilled at the improvements in collaboration and communication that you’ve seen so far.

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Good business flow describes an organizational system that’s able to provide a consistent, steady flow of value to its customers. Bad flow is what happens when
Good business flow describes an organizational system that’s able to provide a consistent, steady flow of value to its customers. Bad flow is what happens when

Now that you’ve mastered the basics of Kanban, you’re ready to kick things into high gear and start optimizing for speed. Kanban metrics can help you use information about how your team functions to increase your speed of delivery.

If your goals for Kanban are to get more done in less time, this post is for you.

The Truth About Time and Work

Every team wants to move faster and get more done. In an effort to reduce overall lead times, managers will ask their teams to:

  • Work faster, which usually results in more errors and lower work quality, or
  • Work longer, which can lead to low morale and burnout

Ultimately, these options are not effective or sustainable solutions for improving productivity. That’s because the real problem isn’t productivity, but efficiency.

Without visual management, teams have no way of uncovering the sources of inefficiency that are impacting their ability to get things done. They can’t see how team member A’s excessive workload is impacting team member B’s ability to move work across the finish line.

They can’t see just how long work sits in wait states, or how blocked work items are impeding progress. They have no sense of how long different types of work take to complete, so they are unable to provide their stakeholders with realistic estimates of lead time.

Luckily, if you’re already practicing Kanban, you are already generating data that will help you understand and improve all these factors and more. Lead time and cycle time are two metrics your team can use to boost efficiency and speed up delivery.

Lead Time: Measuring Total Time, from To Do to Done

Both lead time and cycle time help us understand how long work takes to flow through our Kanban systems, but they measure different segments of the process.

Lead time measures the total time it takes for work to move through the value stream, from the moment the work is requested to the time it’s delivered. It measures duration from beginning to end. This includes process time, as well as time that work spends sitting in queues, or wait states.

We measure lead time by starting a timer when work is requested, and stopping that timer when the work is delivered. Of course, it would be challenging to manually measure lead times for every piece of work that moves through our system – which is why it’s helpful to find Kanban software that does this measuring for you – but more about that later.

Lead time is often used to provide estimates to customers, so it’s critical that teams have an accurate understanding of their average lead times for different types of work. Often, when we provide estimates, we think about how long it will take us to actively do the work – to design, develop, test, and deploy it.

However, unless your Kanban system is hyper-optimized for efficiency, it’s likely that these active, value-adding steps only represent a fraction of your overall lead time. It’s more likely that between each of the process steps, the work will spend a considerable amount of time in queues, or wait states, and that the time spent in wait states will be greater than the active work time.

Often, reducing lead times is a matter of optimizing handoffs between process steps, to minimize the time work spends in wait states. Limiting WIP across the team is one of the most effective ways to reduce wait states and thereby reduce overall lead times. Optimizing cycle times is another equally important method.

Cycle Time: How Long Does It Take Us To….

Cycle time measures how long it takes a work item to get from point A to point B. Since cycle time can be measured from any two starting and ending points on the board, it’s common for several categories of cycle time to exist on one board (e.g., design cycle time, development cycle time, QA cycle time, etc.).

Similar to measuring lead times, we can measure cycle times by starting a timer when work enters a certain lane on our board, and stop it when it moves out of that lane.

Teams can measure cycle times on each of the steps in their process and experiment with ways to reduce them. For example, if you find that your design cycle time is considerably longer than the other steps in your process, you can try reducing the WIP limit of the design step, assigning an additional team member to the design step, or simplifying requirements for design, allowing the team to move through that step faster.

It might be that within a specific step, there are several review cycles that aren’t visualized. Visualizing these review cycles as their own individual steps can help teams get a more accurate understanding of where work gets stuck.

Next Steps

Both cycle time and lead time can be used to boost efficiency on your team. For example, if you want to improve the delivery capabilities of your software development team, your cycle time measurement can track the time it takes a work item to go from the commitment point to deployment.

If, however, you want to improve the performance of a section of your process, such as design, then measuring design lead time gives you more specific insight into the flow of work through that portion of your system. An accurate understanding of both lead time and cycle time allows you to improve specific components of your process so you can better impact overall efficiency.

If you’re practicing Kanban with AgilePlace and are ready to accelerate your speed of delivery, good news! You can view your lead and cycle times in the Analytics section of the tool. Learn how to design your board for accurate and actionable reporting.