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Time To Make Time

by John Shook
January 17, 2020

Time To Make Time

by John Shook
January 17, 2020 | Comments (7)

In a recent Post, Orry Fiume argued that Lean is a time-based strategy – that in fact “time is the currency of Lean.” I don’t usually spend a lot of time with social media or reading blogs, but did so over the holidays and found that Orry’s post has been widely shared and discussed on other forums. I’d say that’s an indication of how important the topic is today.

Clicking around, I saw essentially two arguments being made against the case for lean as a time-based strategy. The first counterargument was that quality should come first; the second was that lean is about problem solving, and prioritizing time is the enemy. Actually, both positions argue that time is the enemy.


If you have a deadline of any sort, a delivery commitment, you have a time constraint. A deadline may be tied to the delivery of a shipment (the truck arrives at 4PM), or linked to a customer requirement (the museum needs the sculpture by end of April); it could simply be the expected timing of a handoff to the following process.  Takt time is a way of translating customer requirement into a common time bucket for each process (and serves various purposes, including “a management tool to indicate at a glance whether production is ahead or behind”). Whether you can find an easy application of the takt time concept (such as its classic application on a moving assembly line) or if applicability seems less apparent, creating and monitoring takt time recognizes that you still have a deadline. And a deadline can be translated into a rhythm for each producer in the system (and everyone is a producer, either directly or indirectly).

It is interesting indeed that in these conversations the notion of time inspires so much fear. Certainly, time can be misused: deadlines imposed without full understanding of the work to be done; mistaking cycle time for takt time (or vice versa – for more on this and various critical terms of lean operations, read the series of definitions in the Lean Lexicon under the heading of “Cycle Time-Related Terms Involving Time”); milestones used as opportunities to blow smoke about what is going well in order to buy time to skate around the real issues; time pressures that stress people so they don’t do their best work. Ad nauseum.

But, TPS uses time as an enabler. An “enemy”, perhaps, but one to make somehow into your friend, your partner. Perhaps it is easier to see the positive role of time in establishing smoother, high velocity flow compared with slower, more erratic operations. But, no matter, time can be tapped into to enable deep, consistent problem-solving.

Being right means being right in time. While Apple was right with the idea of a hand-held device you could write on and carry around with you, it was wrong in time by more than a decade – in the late 80s Apple created video mockups of a product called Knowledge Navigator which was to be a tablet the size of an opened magazine…this perfect description of the iPad became the Newton, Apple’s most catastrophic failure. Digital Equipment Corporation CEO Ken Olsen was right that a computer on each desk was inferior to centralized storage of data (what we call the cloud); he was however wrong by more than three decades.  Every tech gadget released from Silicon Valley or every car from Detroit could benefit from waiting a little longer for the next gen technology – but, if it’s not released in time, no one will buy it.

Perhaps you also have had this experience. I remember so well, once (well, more than once), I insisted on extra time for an important (so we had decided) project so I could build in “extra quality”.  Delivery was late. The opportunity was lost.

But, thinking in terms of “deadlines” may prompt a mental impression of linear flow when in fact there are multiple flows competing for attention; it may be more useful to think in terms of cycles rather than linear flow. Cycles of work, cycles of improvement, cycles of experiments, cycles of learning. And what is a cycle without a cadence?

Source: James Clear

Nigel Thurlow, the Toyota executive tasked by the company to meld agile with TPS, describes scrum as time-bound PDCA. I’ll buy that: a PDCA structure, a kind of kata, a routine for standardized work & kaizen. For success in any change or management initiative, We’d like to establish cycles and to make PDCA time- and structure-bound. We can use that as our key operating design principle – PDCA is both the embedded structure and the output (in the form of ongoing PDCA). The embedding is aided by ensuring it is time-bound.

How does time enable better problem solving and better quality? By adding a critical dimension to predictions. In business or any other task-based organization, predictions are most (only?) useful when they include the dimension of when. When will we learn from this experiment? When will this technology be ready? When will we identify the skills required so we can commence with the hiring process? When will we deliver the product?


Flow is the optimal psychological state for a human, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who described it as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”) and, the optimal operational state for a business. Flow means smooth movement from A to B, from input to output, from thought to thought. Flow is interrupted whenever there is imbalance in time between A and B, between input and output, between thought and thought. That interruption is turbulence and turbulence is the eternal enemy of flow. Turbulence is to flow as entropy is to enterprise vitality – they are both natural forces: what do we choose to do to combat them?

So time, or timing, is present at every consideration of work, of system development, of even organization purpose. Today’s most valuable company – Amazon – will one day be gone. Yesterday’s most valuable – GE – isn’t the most valuable anymore. One day it will be gone.

A valuable lesson in time and quality

I learned an important lesson about time and quality and how they relate to problem solving and waste in a 1992 visit to Detroit Diesel. I had a dual appointment at the time, splitting my time between the Toyota Technical Center, USA and Toyota Supplier Support Center.  Toyota had a close relationship with Detroit Diesel owner Roger Penske. My visit was a friendly one and entailed the opportunity to shadow the legendary leader (and, not the focus of this discussion, but I can confirm that the many accolades Penske has been awarded are well-earned) for a full day.

Penske had taken over DD from GM just a few years before. Up until then DD had been a perennial problem for GM – poor quality, high costs, troublesome labor relations. All the usual Detroit Three symptoms. Within three years, Penske had executed an amazing turnaround. Quality improvements that had been deemed impossible. Labor relations that rivaled the best in the US. Costs, however, were still too high.

So, walk the gemba. A point of great pride of the plant operations team was the assembly stations. Engines (big engines) were guided one at a time into workstations manned by a single worker. The worker would signal when a completed – with perfect quality – product could leave his station and another would be delivered to take its place. The worker would then have a target of about (my memory) eight or so minutes to perform his assembly work, complete with quality check at the end. There was much pride in the fact that the worker could take as long as needed to assure perfect quality. Only the worker released the product to the next operation and only after ensuring required quality.

It all sounded good – other than the obvious fact that flow was totally broken as a result of all the parallel-processing individual work cells – until we watched a few operations go through a few complete cycles. It turned out that within the eight-minute standard time was far more waste than work, with most of the time spent on workarounds for abnormalities that shouldn’t exist in the first place (walking, looking, getting, checking…). There was plenty of motion. But motion doesn’t equal work.

Leaving wasted time in a job cheats everyone. The customer is cheated by having to wait for the product. The company (and owner, investor) is cheated by having to install more capacity than is needed. And the worker is cheated by having their valuable human time wasted. Imagine all day, every day, wasting four out of eight minutes – half of your effort – on tasks and motions that needn’t be there at all.

More recently I saw the same phenomenon in Japan at a Toyota plant that builds Lexus vehicles. The plant was running at a slow pace, a takt time of around two minutes, as I recall. Quality output from the plant was great – probably the best quality output of any auto plant in the world. There were few vehicles in the final repair area. And – a telling piece of intel – there was a notable paucity of andon pulls!

Fujio Cho has spoken about this: “When I hear a production line never stops and there are no mistakes or problems, I would say that is because they have not challenged themselves”. Taiichi Ohno went so far as to say, “I would hope to design a system that can fail (or lose money) when defects are produced”

That holy grail of operational stability starts with a workforce that shows up on time determined to build in quality. Paying attention to time does not mean you have to overwork, but it does mean we can establish rhythms that allow work that is steady. We want work to be steady, so we can establish flow, so that we can supply our customers what they need when they need it. Flow is operational nirvana.

Few andon pulls. And few line-stops occurring throughout the day. What to make of that? Is that evidence of good quality being built in? Is it evidence that workers are facing few problems? Is it evidence of an overall high-quality operation?

Casual observation might lead one to conclude the answer to those questions is yes.

But, closer observation (of the WORK!) revealed a different story.

There is good in the situation we observed, of course. Quality problems are evidently being uncovered at the source in real time. The worker has a sense of ownership, stemming from the fact that they do, indeed, own the quality outcome. Those are two powerful positives.

Those positives make it hard to see the underlying, insidious, and therefore critically important problem that is endemic to such an operation. To explore, we need to go back to the matter of time.

Time is a crucial element to good job design that employed properly can support the building in of quality. And that applies to ANY job, from production line worker to stylist to entrepreneur to CEO to bureaucrat. Great job designers embrace time as an ally, asking such questions as: How much time is consumed by the value-creating work and supporting processes today? How much time should they require? Should we add more time here, take out time there? All those questions are answerable, but they are only answerable by studying the work itself. Work takes time.

Time is a limited, and perhaps our most precious, resource. As we take time to complete our work, a customer is out there waiting. Or not. 

Back to Orry Fiume’s post, yes, lean (TPS) entails a time-based strategy. When we don’t value time, everyone is cheated:

  • The customer is cheated
  • The company is cheated
  • The worker is cheated

Certainly, we don’t want to cram in more work than can be done effectively within a given time bucket. But the question that must be addressed to ensure we make precisely that mistake is to know how much time is truly required to complete the task. Sounds easy. But, take a look around your place of work. Does everyone have enough time to do their work? Is their work full of waste and rework (poor quality)? How much time does the value creation actually require? It’s usually not so easy to know the answers to those simple questions. And you certainly WON’T find the answers if you don’t concern yourself with questions of time.

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7 Comments | Post a Comment
Frank Castillo January 17, 2020
5 People AGREE with this comment

Hi John,

Thank you for sharing your wise insight. It´s taken me many years, but I learned to see time as an important element of Quality. When flow is disrupted, it´s because we have a problem & many times those problems impact the quality of the product. Without that time reference or cadence, we wouldn´t be able to see those problems & solve them before they become bigger. 

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Orry Fiume January 18, 2020
2 People AGREE with this reply

John, I enjoyed reading your analysis of my article. You go much deeper into the concept of time than I did and talk about other dimensions of time that I didn’t cover.  My argument was simply that focusing on time can create competitive advantage, which goes back to QCD…which is a core concept of kaizen (see Imai’s book “Kaizen”).

Q= Quality.  Good quality is a competitive advantage over bad quality.  However, there are lots of competitors that can deliver good quality (even though they may internally produce lots of bad quality that is culled out before it gets to the customer), so it’s hard to gain substantial competitive advantage when that condition exists.

C= Cost, or price.  And yes, you can gain some competitive advantage by selling cheaper than your competition, but you do so by sacrificing profit. 

D= Delivery.  This is where the concept of Time as a competitive weapon comes in.  Assume the industry standard for a configured OEM product is two weeks for a quote, two months for a prototype and two months from receipt of the first purchase order to first delivery.  If I can change that to two days for a quote, two weeks for a prototype and two weeks for first delivery, that gives me a significant time advantage over the competition.  One of our companies was able to do that.

At the risk of being too metaphysical…We create value by producing products and services that solve customers’ problems.   In the physical world there are two things that have finite limits: time and frequency. 

Time is limited to 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute, etc.

Frequency is limited to the speed of light. 

These two concepts impact two important concepts in Lean…cycle time and takt time.

Takt time measures the frequency of demand…e.g. if demand is 60 units per hour we have to complete one unit every minute…i.e. a one minute takt time…in order to satisfy that frequency of demand.   

Cycle time is the amount of time that it takes to produce one unit of demand and the sum of the cycle times of all of the processes involved in providing a particular product or service is referred to as lead time.

If we know the cycle time of a process and the takt time of the demand being placed on that process, we can calculate the staffing needed to satisfy that demand.  For example, if a process has a three-minute cycle time and a one-minute takt time we need three people, each doing one minute of work, to satisfy the demand. 

Productivity is the relationship between the output of a process and the amount of resources consumed to create that output.

If demand increases (reducing its takt time), and cycle time stays constant, we need to add resources (people and machines) to satisfy the increased demand.

 If demand increases (reducing its takt time), and if we can reduce the amount of time it takes to produce each unit (i.e. cycle time) we can create more products and services (value) while consuming less resources per unit. 


  • If demand (frequency) increases and cycle time deceases at the same rate, we can create more value (products and services) without increasing resources.
  • If we can meet increased demand without increasing resources, that represents a productivity increase equal to the rate of the increase in demand.
  • If we can reduce cycle time substantially, and thus decrease lead time substantially beyond what the competition can achieve, that represents using time as a competitive weapon.
  • Lean is a Time Based Strategy, and Time is the currency of lean both in gaining substantial competitive advantage and significantly improving productivity and value creation.


P.S. Regarding Frequency…most of us don’t have to worry about the demand for our products approaching the upper limit…i.e. the speed of light.  However, this is a concern for some products and has had a significant impact on their design…namely computer chips and cables.  As the amount of data to be processed increases (impacting takt time), in order to process and transmit that data in a reasonable amount of time, the computer industry has had to design chips that have increasingly shorter cycle times (currently measured in billions of computations per second) and use fiber optic cables to transmit data at the speed of light.  The designers of these products have had to constantly deal with the limits of Time and Frequency.



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Jeff Fuchs January 18, 2020

Orry and John,

Thank you both for your thoughtful comments on this topic.  John, your reflections, I think, help people take a broader view on time as a critical factor in improvement.  The question of optimizing around quality versus time is something that folks in the lean community grapple with all the time.  Orry, your comments here confirm what I guessed: Your effort was to point out that a time-based strategy can provide competitive advantage.

One thing that caught my notice in this post is that defining lean is not easy; the definitions we use both clarify and distort the true essence of lean, often at the same time.

The first definition I grasped of lean was that it was all about "waste elimination", which many now see is true, but at the same time incomplete and potentially misleading.  This definition certainly helped me in the earliest years as a lean practitioner, but it was simplistic and increasingly led me astray later in life.  I benefitted later my a deeper understanding.

These days, I rely more on "systematically solving problems" as a centerpiece of my deepening understanding of what lean is.  I often think about the "efficiency versus effectiveness" question and the "climbing the ladder versus leaning the ladder against the right wall" analogy.  Lean understood as systematically solving problems addresses both pieces.  John, I know you yourself often begin by asking, "What problem are you trying to solve?" and "Why is this problem important?"  I classify these as effectiveness questions, and they are a big part of Lean Thinking.

Orry, you make a great point that I expect will be a big "ah-ha" for readers: Lean is a time-based strategy that can create competitive advantage.  My observation is that this definition can be helpful. 

To that, I would add a cautious "...yes, and...": That lean is more, as well.  Efficiency is desired value results per unit applied resource. Time is a critical resource, if not *the* critical resource humans have.  Lean is also about the first part of that equation: the value toward which we strive, and how and why we aim toward it. What is our evolving understanding of "value"? Is it quality? Features? What unrecognized problems do customers have that we might solve? What of society and the environment? How to we optimize around human fulfillment?

Orry, looks like you *and* I got metaphysical there...sorry! Bottom line: Helpful definition and discussion that will help advance understanding. It is also not the final word, so we should take care, and always reflect.


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Orry Fiume January 18, 2020

Thanks Jeff for your observations.  Regarding "lean was all about 'waste elimination'" is where I got tripped up at the beginning of our lean transformation.  My accounting brain interperted that as "elimate waste = reduce costs". Howerver, one of our Japanese sensei set me straight. When Toyota talks about eliminating waste what they mean is to eliminate the activities that don't add value and are wasting time...thus freeing up the time that those activities are consuming and ultimately reducing lead time.  If you look at the "seven wastes" each one of them involves wasting time.  

Simon Gary January 20, 2020

Thank you for sharing this discussion. I take quite a simple definition of lean, deriving it from two principles. 1) Respect people 2) Create a learning environment.

If you can live by these principles, you get everything else as an outcome. When either I, or someone else, does not value time, it becomes okay to work wastefully.

Time and respect necessarily drive the need to learn, posing the constant question "how can I do this better, next time?"

If every individual asks this, and is given the time to address it, then the momentum becomes irresistible. Perhaps the time we free up from waste reduction should be dually re-purposed? Firstly, for more value-added worked, but also for a spot of reflection and hansei?

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Joe Ely January 21, 2020

John, thanks for your thoughtful and useful article.   Orry, your comments hit the money too. 


This is very useful to me.   Thank you!

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Victor Fernandez January 29, 2020

Totally agree with you Joe, very useful information.


Thanks everyone!

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