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What Is Cycle Time and Why Does It Matter?

Noah Davis

By: Noah Davis
December 08, 2020

Team Members Collaborating
Cycle Time

What is Cycle Time?

One of the more important metrics we look at for our own engineering team, as well as for the engineering teams using Velocity, is Cycle Time. Cycle Time is a rough measure of process speed. We’ll explore the definition in more depth, but first, it’s important to understand…

Why Does Cycle Time Matter?

Cycle Time is engineering’s speedometer. Measuring and improving on Cycle Time can help you innovate faster, outrun your competition, and retain top talent. Cycle Time even has implications beyond engineering — it’s also an important indicator of business success.

And yet, a number of engineering organizations practicing lean and/or agile development seem satisfied having their process be proof enough that they care about speed and are moving quickly. And, yet, these teams are likely not measuring any kind of speed. Or worse, they are using metrics more likely to lead to dysfunction than speed.

Mary and Tom Poppendieck, who popularized the idea of applying lean manufacturing principles to software engineering, discuss this phenomenon, specifically for Cycle Time, in their book Lean Software:

“Software development managers tend to ignore Cycle Time, perhaps because they feel that they are already getting things done as fast as they can. In fact, reducing batch sizes and addressing capacity bottlenecks can reduce Cycle Time quite a bit, even in organizations that consider themselves efficient already.”

In other words, rather than trust your gut that you’re moving as fast as possible, why not supplement your understanding with a quantitative measure? As with other metrics, tracking Cycle Time can reduce bias and provide a trustworthy baseline from which to drive improvement.

Back To: What is the Definition of Cycle Time?

Since the term originates in Lean Manufacturing, where “start” and “end” can be unambiguously defined, it’s not always obvious how to apply it to software engineering. Starting at the end of this process, the delivery, is in some ways the easiest: delivery of software is the deployment of production code.

The beginning of the process is more difficult to define. Asking when software development begins is an almost philosophical question. If you’re doing hypothesis-driven product work and are testing your hypothesis, has work started? In his book Developing Products in Half the Time, to illustrate the inherent ambiguity, Donald Reinertsen calls this phase the “fuzzy front end.”

This is why we tend to see development broken into two phases, design and delivery, where design encapsulates activities prior to writing code. Since the delivery phase has a more regular and reliable cadence — and is more completely within engineering’s control — it’s better suited to regular observation and measurement.1

Here at Code Climate, when we discuss Cycle Time, we’re usually referring to “Code Cycle Time,” which isolates the delivery phase of the software development process.

With that in mind, we define Cycle Time as the period of time during which code is “in-flight.” That period may be slightly different depending on an organization’s workflow. Some engineering teams might define Cycle Time as the time between a developer’s first commit in a section of code and when that code is deployed, while others will find it more useful to track the time from when a commit is first logged to when it is merged. 

Ultimately, the goal is to quantify and understand the speed at which an engineering team can deliver working software, so the exact definition of Cycle Time you use is not important, as long as you’re consistent across your organization. The key to measuring Cycle Time is the directionality of the metric. You want an objective picture of how quickly your engineering department is moving, whether it’s getting faster or slower, and how specific teams compare to the rest of the department or others in your industry.  

What Can Measuring Cycle Time Do for You? 

Measuring and improving Cycle Time will boost your engineering team’s efficiency. You’ll deliver value to your users more quickly, which will shorten the developer-user feedback loop and can help you stay ahead of your competition. 

In addition, as you remove roadblocks from your development process, you’ll also reduce sources of frustration for your developers. This can have a positive impact on developer happiness and will set in motion a Virtuous Circle of Software Delivery, in which developers reap the benefits of optimization and are motivated to find even more ways to improve. 


virtuous circle of software delivery

What’s Next?

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what Cycle Time is and why it matters. As a next step, you’re probably starting to think about ways to effectively minimize Cycle Time

We took a data-driven approach to this question and analyzed thousands of pull requests across hundreds of teams. The results were interesting.

We turned that data into a tactical resource, The Engineering Leader’s Guide to Cycle Time, which offers a research-backed approach to minimizing Cycle Time. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the origins of Cycle Time in Software Engineering, Mary and Tom Poppendieck’s book Lean Software, Chapter 4 “Deliver as Fast as Possible” is a great starting point.

If you would like to start tracking your own Code Cycle Time, sign up for a demo of our engineering analytics platform, Velocity.

Related Resources

Cycle Time in Lean Manufacturing

Cycle Time in Software Engineering

Related Terminology

  • Takt Time
  • Lead Time
  • Wait Time
  • Move Time
  • Process Time
  • Little’s Law
  • Throughput
  • WIP

1 Thank you to Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations, by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim for the Donald Reinertsen reference, as well as the articulation of software development as having two primary phases (Chapter 2, p. 14 “Measuring Software Delivery Performance”). Accelerate is an excellent resource for understanding the statistical drivers behind software engineering. We were proud to have Nicole Forsgren speak at our Second Annual Code Climate Summit.

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