Takt Time: How Slow Can You Go?

A long, long time ago – in the days when computer programs were coded as holes in punch cards – I was in ROTC* in college. Twice a year we had a “PT” (Physical Training, I think) test that consisted of measured performance on five “events.” One of those events was a 2 mile run. To get a maximum score of 100 points, the participant had to complete the 2 mile run in 14 minutes and 9 seconds. Why? I have no idea. But that was the way it was.

Yes – this old school stopwatch reads exactly 42 seconds.

My buddy John and I enjoyed running, and would often work out together. Our school was in Potsdam, New York, a place known for rather brutal winters, so we ran on a 1/10 mile indoor track.

We practiced the PT test. John would track our total time for 2 miles (20 laps around the 1/10 mile track). I would measure lap times. Since 14 minutes is 840 seconds, we knew that if we could consistently make 42 second laps, we would complete two miles in 14 minutes, and get the maximum score with 9 seconds to spare.

The track had hash marks at each quarter point, so we knew we had to hit quarter 1 between 10 and 11 seconds, half way at 21, the 3/4 mark between 31 and 32, and the lap at 42. We would check and adjust our pace accordingly, striving to hit exact 42 second laps every time.

To be clear, we could hold that pace many times further than 2 miles. It wasn’t a matter of conditioning. We weren’t going all out. We were going fast enough. And that was the point.

When we took the test, other cadets were going all out, passing us, and turning in much faster times. Others would try to “pace themselves” and then sprint as fast as they could for that last lap. As a general rule, although the instructors were calling out elapsed times as people went by, these cadets weren’t all that aware of the speed they had to hold. They were just going as fast as they could.

Meanwhile, John and I, running together, and tracking our cycle times (lap times) vs the takt time (42 seconds / lap) would come in at pretty much exactly 14 minutes and get the same score as everyone who had finished ahead of us: 100 points.

After our timed run was done, we would keep running, offering encouragement and pacing for those cadets who were struggling a bit. Everyone finishes, nobody left behind.

A couple of the instructors were curious why we didn’t go for a faster time. And many times we did when we were just working out. We were capable of breaking 12 minutes – not competitive times in a track meet, but respectable. The simple fact was that going faster wasn’t necessary to accomplish the goal.

Takt Time and Cycle Time

This is the whole point of having a takt time. It answers the question, “How fast must we go?” It doesn’t answer “How fast can we go?” nor does it answer “How fast should we go?” I fact, John and I could have run those laps almost (but not quite) half a second slower than we did – which would have eaten into the 9 second buffer we established. Aside from making the math easier, that buffer also gave us a small margin for even something as bad as taking a stumble and standing back up. Also, of course, we could make up 5-10 seconds a lap if we really had to. But we never did. Time: 14:00. We were very consistent.

Rate vs. Output

I encounter a lot of production managers who are so conditioned to focus on the daily output that they don’t even think about the critical factor: How fast are you running vs. how fast do you need to run? In other words what is your rate of output vs. your takt time?

Instead they tend to, at best, count units of output without really paying attention to the time interval between one and the next. In the worst case many units are started at once, and people swarm from one operation to the next during the day – the equivalent of that mad sprint trying to make up as much time as possible. They don’t really know if they will succeed or not until the end of the day (or month!).

It Isn’t a Race

The “just” in “just-in-time” is “just enough resources” to “just make the output you need” in any given time interval. As the operation is streamlined, the same effort is able to accomplish more. Where to put that additional capacity (which costs nothing additional since it has been there all along) to create more value should be the challenge the organization is trying to meet.

My experience has been that managers and leaders often struggle to adopt this “rate” mindset and let go of chasing an inventory number. In the words of the late great philosopher Kenny Rogers – “There’ll be plenty of time for counting when the dealings done.”


*ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) is a U.S. program where college students can earn a commission in the U.S. Armed Forces while earning their degree.

6 Replies to “Takt Time: How Slow Can You Go?”

  1. What an excellent way to highlight how we apply Takt and Cycle times in our everyday lives and don’t give it a second thought! Thank you Mark.

  2. I have never thought about production in this way. Whenever thinking about producing inventory, I automatically think, “produce as much as you can to make the most amount of money.” But after reading this, that is not the case. I think that every manager needs to ask the question of “How fast are you running vs. how fast do you need to run?” Just like in this story, you can push yourself to go over that time, or you can stay at a good speed and not overwork yourself. I feel that this concept can be applied to a lot of things in life, not just when manufacturing products—for example, a college student with a lot of homework. You can either cram it all in one night and be super tired the next day or not feel the best with your results of the homework, but you got it done, and now you don’t have to worry about it. Or you have strategically schedule when to do the homework throughout a few days and get it all done on time, go to bed at a reasonable time and give the homework your all! I think everyone could definitely apply this to everyday life to make sure that they are not being over work and meeting their needs.

    1. Sally –
      You get it. The key to lean production is systems that ask and answer “What should be happening?” vs. “What is actually happening?” and a process to detect, respond, and seek to understand why things came out differently than we expected. See: The Meta-Patterns of Innovation

  3. What a great way to look at life. I definitely think that this concept could be applied to many concept other than manufacturing. By using this method many people could not over work themselves. Thanks Mark for this great post and applying it to everyday life.

  4. This is a very strategic way to think about operations. Answering the question “How fast are you running vs. how fast do you need to run?” is a great strategy for supply chain as well. Consistency is key for many processes so understanding the rate of output vs. takt time can help run operations at a consistent speed and no one or one thing gets over worked to the extreme.

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