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Cycle Time: Benefits, Risks & Calculation

Last updated on
February 28, 2024


What is cycle time?

Cycle time is the vital metric that measures the time it takes for a work item to move through the entire software development process.

Why to measure cycle time?

Measuring cycle time provides valuable insights into the efficiency of the development process, enabling teams to optimize workflow, improve productivity, and deliver software faster.

Keep reading to discover the benefits, risks, and alternative metrics associated with measuring cycle time, empowering your team to enhance productivity and deliver high-quality software efficiently.


Cycle Time: Benefits, Risks & Calculation


One of the biggest challenges for development teams is to streamline the software development process and deliver high-quality products faster, hence cycle time is a fundamental metric in software development. It holds the key to understanding and improving the speed and efficiency of your development process.

Without effective cycle time you may face delayed software releases and lengthy development cycles that may hinder your team's productivity and ability to meet customer demands. 

In this article, we will explore the concept of cycle time, how it impacts your team's ability to deliver software, and uncover strategies to optimize it. Get ready to revolutionize your development practices and bring your products to market faster than ever before.

What is cycle time?

cycle time definition

Cycle time refers to the time it takes for a work item to flow through a system from start to finish. It is a measure of the speed at which your business delivers valuable software to users. Think of it as the duration between when you begin working on a feature or bug fix and when it is deployed to production.

To grasp cycle time, you need to picture your software development process as a flow of work. It starts when a new task enters the system, such as a user story or a bug report. Then, your team sets off on the journey of analyzing, designing, coding, testing, and deploying the change. Cycle time encompasses all these stages.

A shorter cycle time implies that you are capable of delivering software updates more rapidly. It means that your business can respond quickly to user needs, fix bugs promptly, and deliver new features sooner. A longer cycle time, on the other hand, indicates slower delivery, which may frustrate users and impede the overall progress of a project.

By focusing on minimizing cycle time, you will foster a culture of fast and reliable software delivery. This will not only enhance user satisfaction but also enable your business to adapt to changing requirements and market conditions more effectively.

Benefits of improving cycle time

cycle time benefits

Improving cycle time in software development offers you several advantages that contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of your development process. Here are five key benefits to consider:

Faster time to market

By reducing  cycle time, your team can deliver software to users more quickly. This translates into faster time to market, enabling your organization to stay ahead of the competition and respond rapidly to changing market demands. It will allow your businesses to seize opportunities, capture user feedback sooner, and generate revenue faster.

Enhanced agility and adaptability

A shorter cycle time will enhance your team's agility and adaptability. It will enable you to respond swiftly to customer feedback, market trends, or evolving requirements. This flexibility will empower your organization to remain responsive and deliver value to customers in a timely manner.

Increased productivity and efficiency

Improving cycle time drives productivity and efficiency gains. When work flows smoothly and swiftly through the development pipeline, it reduces idle time and minimizes delays caused by bottlenecks. This leads to improved team morale, higher output, and better utilization of resources.

Early validation and risk mitigation

Shorter cycle times facilitate early validation and risk mitigation. With faster feedback loops, your team can get their work in front of users or stakeholders sooner. This approach reduces the chances of investing significant time and effort in features or solutions that do not meet user needs or expectations.

Continuous process improvement

Monitoring and improving cycle time creates a culture of continuous process improvement. By tracking and analyzing cycle time data, your team can identify inefficiencies and bottlenecks. It will ultimately lead to better software quality, increased productivity, and shorter delivery cycles in your company.

Risks of focusing on cycle time improvements

While measuring and improving cycle time can bring many benefits to your product development team, it's crucial to be aware of the potential risks associated with relying solely on cycle time results. Below you will find five risks to consider:

Sacrificing quality for speed

Focusing solely on reducing cycle time may lead to a compromise in software quality. Your team might rush through development stages to meet aggressive time targets. This trade-off can result in the release of buggy or incomplete software, which can harm user experience and damage your team's reputation.

Ignoring complexity and technical debt

Cycle time measures the time it takes for work to move through the development process but doesn't account for the complexity of tasks. If your team solely prioritizes shorter cycle time, they might neglect critical technical improvements, resulting in a growing burden of unresolved technical issues that can slow down future development and increase maintenance costs.

Neglecting collaboration and learning

Focusing too much on cycle time can overshadow the importance of collaboration and learning within your team. It may  become fixated on individual task completion times. This can hinder creativity, innovation, and the overall growth of your  team members.

Overlooking customer value

Cycle time optimization may become an end in itself, diverting attention from delivering customer value. This tunnel vision on cycle time can lead to a misalignment between the software's functionality and user requirements, resulting in reduced customer satisfaction and adoption.

Neglecting continuous improvement

Relying solely on cycle time as a performance metric can limit your team's focus to short-term gains and prevent them from achieving long-term improvement. A narrow focus on cycle time can hinder your team's ability to adapt, learn, and evolve their development practices over time.

<span class="colorbox1" fs-test-element="box1"><p>Read also: Technical Debt Ratio is a metric that allows development teams to manage risks, maintain quality, and track technical debt. Find out when and how to use it.</p></span>

How to measure cycle time?

To measure cycle time, start by selecting a work item that represents a unit of work, such as a user story, feature, or bug fix. For our example, let's consider a user story called "Implement User Registration."

Start the timer

Begin timing when work begins on the selected user story. This can be when a developer starts coding or when your team officially starts working on the task.

Track progress

Monitor the various stages involved in completing the user story. These stages can include coding, testing, code review, integration, and any other necessary steps in your development process.

Stop the timer

Stop the timer when the user story is considered completed and ready for deployment. This can be when the code is tested, reviewed, and accepted, meeting your team's definition of done.

Let's say your team took 3 days to complete the "Implement User Registration" user story. You started working on Monday morning and finished on Wednesday afternoon.

Calculate cycle time

Calculate the cycle time by subtracting the start time from the stop time. In our example, the start time was Monday morning, and the stop time was Wednesday afternoon, resulting in a cycle time of 3 days.

By tracking cycle time for multiple work items over time, your team can gather data and analyze trends. This data can help you identify areas for improvement, bottlenecks, or delays within the development process.

Optimizing cycle time and throughput

Check how two metrics led us to a 50% increase in team's throughput

Alternatives to cycle time

While cycle time is a popular metric for measuring software development efficiency, there are alternative metrics that will provide you with different insights into the development process. Here are a few main alternatives to cycle time, along with their explanations and comparisons:

Lead time

Lead time measures how long it takes to deliver a work item to the customer or end-user after it's been requested. It includes not only the development time but also any time spent in the backlog or waiting for approval. Lead time provides you with a broader perspective on the overall time it takes to fulfill user requests or deliver features. 

Choose lead time when you want to understand the end-to-end time it takes to deliver value to customers, including any waiting or approval stages outside the development pipeline.

Touch time

Touch time measures the actual time your team members spend actively working on a specific task or feature. It excludes any idle time, interruptions, or time spent on unrelated activities. Touch time provides insights into the productivity and focus of individual team members or the team as a whole. 

Choose touch time when you want to assess the productivity, efficiency, or utilization of your team members. It will help you identify areas where individuals or the team may be spending excessive time on non-value-added activities.

Cumulative flow diagram (CFD)

A cumulative flow diagram visualizes the flow of work items through different stages of the development process over time. It provides a clear picture of the work in progress (WIP) at any given moment, highlighting bottlenecks and areas of congestion. 

Choose CFD when you want a visual representation of the flow and distribution of work items, allowing you to identify bottlenecks, optimize WIP limits, and improve overall flow through the development process.

Burn-up chart

A burn-up chart tracks the progress of completing work items over time. It shows the cumulative completed work as well as the projected work to be completed. Unlike cycle time, which focuses on time and speed, burn-up charts provide insights into progress and predictability.

Choose a burn-up chart when you want to visualize progress, track completion rates, and assess whether your team is on target to meet their objectives. It helps in managing expectations and making necessary adjustments to stay on course.

Next steps

Measuring cycle time is a powerful tool for enhancing software development efficiency. It helps to accelerate delivery and respond to market demands faster. However, it's important to remember that metrics should be tailored to align with your product and business goals. Every team needs to compose a set of metrics that best suit their unique circumstances.

For a comprehensive understanding of software delivery performance metrics, process metrics, and other software development metrics, explore our articles and effortlessly create a metrics framework that drives your product towards success.

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Olga Gierszal
Software Engineering Editor

Software development enthusiast with 6 years of professional experience in the tech industry.

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