Use and Misuse of Takt Time in Services

I had an interesting discussion about takt time not so long ago and I have been mulling over what was said regarding the use of takt time in service organisations.

Firstly, what is takt time? Well ‘takt’ is a German word meaning ‘rhythm’ or ‘drum-beat’. Takt time describes the average time between every instance of a demand on an organisation. The easiest way to explain it is to describe an example. (The numbers are not realistic. They are dreamt up to make the arithmetic easy.)

Imagine a car manufacturer who gets on average 100 new orders for cars per day, they run the factory for five hours so that is 300 minutes per day. Thus to fill the received orders they need to build 100 cars in 300 minutes each day. If a car popped off the assembly line following a regular drum-beat, that would mean a car finished every 3 minutes. Thus the takt time would be three minutes. This takt time would be used to level the production so that all the processes followed the beat. Now you can’t make an engine in 3 minutes so you would have lots of engine assembling stations so you might make 10 engines at the same time that took 30 minutes each to make. That would be an engine every 3 minutes, on average.

The takt time will be used to balance the processes so that they all take a multiple of just under 3 minutes to keep the factory humming along, pushing a finished car out every 3 minutes.

This is informative when you are making things since all the materials to make a car need to arrive at the right time to be attached to the right car and a drum-beat can help organise and regulate things. You also have the option to spread the work over a day or a week. However, in service, takt time should be taken with a pinch of salt. Some might apply takt time to arrivals in A&E, 999 calls to the police or other on-demand services. You need to have a good appreciation of demand in all these services because you need to know how much resource you need to meet the demand. However, managers need to realise that however tempting takt time may be, in a situation where you can’t balance demand and delivery processes, takt time doesn’t tell you anything useful.

Let’s think about the police. Take the same (unrealistic) numbers from the example above. A police service receives 100 emergency calls in a 5 hour shift. Again that gives a takt time of 3 minutes. But this time the managers can’t balance the other processes, because there is variety in the demand. One call may be about the discovery of a burglary and another about a mass brawl in a pub. These two calls will not be equivalent in the same way that making two different cars or even a car and a van might be on an assembly production line. The calls will require different response times, need different personnel, varying numbers of officers and all engaged for different amounts of time both in the field and doing different paperwork back at the station.

You may wonder if you have a service process that is more like a assembly line, perhaps processing mortgage applications, then maybe you can find a use for takt time. Perhaps you can, but the point here really is you need to ask yourself what it is telling you. It is only the average amount of time between points of demand and following down the takt time route gives you the feeling that you can treat your office like a factory which may blind you and in turn cause you to break up work even further.

You should always seek to understand demand. It is just that “I want a car.” repeated many times a day is much simpler than most of the demands placed on service organisations even if the car itself is more complicated than many services. In most cases, it is the use of Systems Thinking to identify value to the customer and hence the removal of delay, errors, waste and hence failure demand in a process that really brings benefit. Chasing concepts like takt time more often than not take attention off the real problems.

Don’t dismiss these tools, but rather apply them with care in your organisations and never use a tool until you understand the problem it is trying to solve and whether you actually suffer from the same problem.



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  1. Gerardo -

    Rob, i just can tell that what you are explaining here, shows a well tought example about when takt-time couldn’t be a good reference. In fact i currently constructing my Major Proyect about the whole issue of applying manufacturing concepts like “Lean principles” and “Six Sigma” methodologies, in services industries. Men, i have to say it, thnaks a lot on this. You enlightened my opion about when takt-time doesn’t give a lot for improvement propourses.

    Thanks Again.