Defining Idle Time: How to Calculate, Interpret, and Improve it
Idle time is a phrase you will often hear in the manufacturing and workforce management space as it is closely tied to productivity.
It is not a stretch to say that, by reducing idle time, organizations can see a boost to their bottom line. However, to put this into action, you first need to understand what idle time is and what it isn’t.
In this overview, we will define idle time, discuss how much is too much, show you how to calculate it, share the most common causes of idle time, and outline steps to minimize idle time at your organization.
What is idle time?
Idle time is a period of time in which an asset (machine or an employee) is ready and available, but is not doing anything productive. This is why idle time is sometimes referred to as waiting time.
Idle time is when a machine is waiting for input material. It’s an office employee waiting for the internet connection to come back. A truck on a construction site waiting for an excavator to move so it can get to its target location. It is a maintenance mechanic waiting for a circular saw to become available so he can finish his job.
The reason why you want to understand and track idle time is because it points to the gap between your existing output and your theoretically maximal productivity level. Simply put, every minute that your machine or employee is idle is a minute of lost productivity.
That being said, no business can run at 100% efficiency. Some level of idle time is inevitable. The goal of every manager should only be to minimize idle time, not to eliminate it. Eliminating idle time is close to impossible and might only be considered for closed, highly-automated systems.
Idle time = downtime?
Idle time does not equal downtime. While in both cases the machine isn’t doing anything productive, the key difference lies in why is that happening.
In the context of abnormal idle time, the machine is capable of performing its intended function but for a certain reason, it doesn’t. There are many possible causes of machine idle time like:
- no input raw material
- waiting for another machine to finish its job
- different workflow and process inefficiencies
- production needs to be slowed down or stopped (for reasons like inventory at full capacity)
- power outages or similar technical problems that are not related to the machine itself
When we talk about machine downtime, the asset is not operational because one of two reasons:
- Scheduled maintenance: This is when you schedule planned downtime to perform preventive maintenance on an asset. This is sometimes referred to as normal idle time because scheduled maintenance is something that needs to be performed to keep the machines in good condition.
- Machine failure: Unexpected machine breakdown that needs to be corrected before the machine can continue working. Can be referred to as abnormal idle time since it represents an event that is out of our control and hurts overall business productivity.
Broadly speaking, when we talk about idle time, the asset can run but it doesn’t. And when we talk about equipment downtime, the machine doesn’t run because it can’t.
Because of this difference, maintenance teams should track planned and unplanned machine downtime separately from idle time.
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How to calculate idle time
Idle time represents the disparity between the time an asset is scheduled to run and how many actual productive hours have been spent.
For example, in an 8-hour shift, an employee might track 7 hours and 20 minutes of productive work. This suggests that they had 40 minutes of idle time, assuming they accurately tracked everything on a time basis.
When we talk about machines, things get a bit more complicated because you have to differentiate between when a machine is just turned on and the actual productive work.
Let’s imagine that you have a machine that works for 16 hours. For this example, let’s say it needs 10 minutes to power up, 5 minutes to shut down, has one 30 minute break for cleaning, and is stopped for 15 minutes for a shift change.
In other words, the machine is supposed to do productive work for 15 hours or 900 minutes.
One can easily imagine a situation where a machine was idling:
- 5 minutes every hour waiting for input material (75 minutes in total)
- 10 minutes because a shift change took 25 instead of the usual 15 minutes
- 40 minutes because another machine in the production line had an unexpected breakdown
This would all amount to 125 minutes of idle time.
Would you need to reduce it to zero? Not necessarily. Maybe those 5 minutes every hour are also needed for machine operators to take necessary breaks or clean things up. That being said, you would definitely want to eliminate idle time caused by unplanned machine breakdowns.
Common causes of idle time
Before we outline best practices for reducing it, let’s briefly discuss common causes of idle time:
- Worker inefficiencies: Workers are not machines and some are more efficient than others. They need breaks to avoid burnout. Some inefficiencies are the result of newly hired employees going through an adjustment period. To address worker inefficiencies, you can work on improving your onboarding process, track their work hours, and develop a company culture where everyone has to pull their own weight.
- Process and workflow inefficiencies: Poorly optimized production and business processes, waiting for approvals, and lack of available tools to perform assigned work order are things you should look at to reduce process and workflow inefficiencies.
- Faulty equipment: Unexpected machine breakdowns can cause serious operational issues. Maintenance departments should use a CMMS system and have a proactive maintenance plan for all medium and high-priority assets.
- Accidents and natural disasters: Things that are mostly out of our control. It usually makes more sense to try and prepare for such events than to try to prevent them.
How to reduce idle time
One question you need to ask yourself before we dive into actionable tips is something we already alluded to earlier: Do you even want to eliminate idle time?
This is especially important when we talk about employees. You can’t expect people to be productive every second of every day. There is a reason why most schools and universities work in 40-60 minute blocks with short breaks. To avoid burnout and actually improve overall productivity, different research suggests an ideal working block is between 50-90 minutes with breaks lasting 5-20 minutes.
Things are different when we start talking about machines as it’s not like they will get tired, lose concentration, and make a mess. That being said, there are reasons not to push all machines to their limits either. While machines do not get tired, they do get worn out. For instance, some machines have components that should not exceed certain temperature levels. A little bit of idle time might be just what they need to cool down.
Those are specific cases you want to have in mind.
However, there is no doubt that a high amount of idle time is something that needs to be addressed as it can ruin an organization in the long run – either through lost productivity or by actually increasing costs while adding no value (this is especially noticeable in the construction and transportation industries through the cost of wasted fuel from the machines and trucks that are idle).
Here are a few ways in which you can reduce idle time and improve productivity:
#1) Optimize your workflow
As we mentioned earlier, workflow and process inefficiencies are a common cause of idle time. This is why every organization should work on spotting and eliminating bottlenecks and other issues caused by those inefficiencies.
The first step in solving any problem is realizing you have one. If you want to check if idle time is hurting your department, the first step should be to implement a program for tracking and reporting productive vs nonproductive time.
To reduce idle time of the employees you can:
- look to create more balanced schedules and workload, especially for bigger projects with multiple team members where one task needs to be finished before the next one can begin
- eliminate unnecessary administrative tasks (like (pre)approvals, tracking one thing in multiple places, etc.)
- create clear operating procedures for routine tasks (in the maintenance space, this would translate into creating things like standard operating procedures and preventive maintenance checklists)
- ensure employees have tools available when they need them (be it a wrench or access to a project management tool)
- adopt lean practices
When it comes to workflow optimizations for machines, your options are somehow limited as you can’t change how a machine works. You can still look to:
- arrange machines in such a way that the output from one machine flows efficiently to be the input for another machine
- you have enough qualified workforce to support/operate the machines
- look for ways to maximize production output and increase the active time of your assets
#2) Keep your assets in good shape
The unavoidable fact is that damaged assets can’t reach their peak productivity levels. If the assets don’t work at their full capacity, it means you have room for improvement.
Here are a few tips to keep assets in peak operating condition:
- put important assets on a preventive maintenance plan
- implement condition monitoring and autonomous maintenance to spot equipment deterioration as early as possible
- use quality input (raw) material
- reduce the number of improvised solutions and low-quality spare parts and try to use mostly OEM approved replacement parts
- use mobile CMMS to ensure that required maintenance work is done – and that it is done on time
#3) Improve information flow
This tip could easily be titled “improve communication lines” as the notion is basically the same.
There is a theory out there that the main reason corporations fail (corruption and illegal business practices aside) is because they become too stiff and inefficient. In other words, when a market forces them to change, they are not agile enough to implement structural changes fast enough, and they get left behind their competition.
This ties nicely into idle time. As the organization grows, the number of administrative tasks also grows because the departments need to exchange more information.
If a question has to be run through several managerial levels before an employee gets a clear answer, a significant amount of time will be lost waiting for approvals.
One solution for that is to, whenever possible, eliminate middlemen, clearly define who is responsible for what, and ensure direct communication channels between parties that depend on each other.
Other solutions, especially in the office environment, consist of using available software solutions to speed-up communication, automate tasks that can be automated, track work, and generate helpful reports. Coincidentally, these are all the things that a CMMS does for a maintenance department.
Identify, drill down, correct
Figuring out if idle time is a problem for your organization is often much easier than reducing it.
The main challenge is finding out the root cause of idle time. Is a machine idling because the production process is inefficient? Is it because a preceding machine in the production line doesn’t work at full capacity? Is it because low-quality input material results in more intervention from machine operators, slowing the production down? Is it a combination of different reasons?
While reducing idle time is not always as straightforward as we would like it to be, the effect it can have on your bottom line makes it a worthwhile pursuit.
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