What Is Idle Time? (Plus Types, Steps, Causes and Tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 26 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Idle time, also called waiting time, is a phrase you may often hear in the workforce management and manufacturing space, as it's closely tied to productivity. By reducing waiting time, companies can boost their bottom line. To put this into action, though, it's important to understand what idle time is. In this article, we discuss explain what idle time is, share its different types, discuss how to calculate it, list its common causes and outline the steps you can take to minimise it.

What is idle time?

Idle time is a period of time in which an individual is ready and available for work, but isn't doing anything productive. Examples of waiting time in the workplace include an employee waiting for an internet connection to return and a maintenance mechanic waiting for a mitre saw to become available so they can finish their job.

The primary reason why companies track waiting time is that it can point to the gap between their existing output and their theoretically maximal productivity level. Simply put, every minute that an individual is idle is a minute of lost productivity. No company, though, can run at 100% efficiency, and some level of waiting time is inevitable. If you're a manager, your goal is to minimise waiting time, not to eliminate it.

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Types of waiting time

There are two types of waiting time. These include:

Normal waiting time

Normal waiting time happens because of normal business operation, which isn't under the control of employees, management or company. It's the waiting time within the manufacturing cycles, such as an employee waiting for regular maintenance. It can also be the waiting time during working hours due to employee personal breaks, such as a toilet or tea break. They normally occur in the production process, which may be impossible to avoid, but a company can ensure that they're within a manageable level.

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Abnormal waiting time

Abnormal waiting time refers to the wasted time that a company can avoid by taking precautionary methods. For instance, say a car factory assembly team can make 150 cars in a day, but the quality testing and inspection groups can process only 100 cars during the day. The assembly line may be idle for a period of time until the testing and inspection group can catch up to the pace.

Common causes of waiting time

The causes of waiting time include all the different reasons why work may be temporarily or unexpectedly halted. The cause of a period of waiting time is often beyond an employee's control and may or may not be within the control of a company's management. Here are the common causes of waiting time:

Temporary work stoppage

One of the most common causes of waiting time might be a temporary work stoppage that's intentionally imposed by a company's management. For instance, the work stoppage may occur if the inventory storage facility of a company is at full capacity and can't hold any more items or products. Thus, the company's management may halt production temporarily until they sold or otherwise removed some of the existing inventory.

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Waiting on necessary material

Another common cause of waiting time is waiting for the necessary material. For instance, an employee may wait for a report from another department before they can proceed with their own work. A piece of equipment may be subject to waiting time if it's necessary for the operator to receive the material that the equipment processes. The longer it takes for the necessary materials to arrive, the more waiting time the operator or company experiences. In addition, power outages, failures and delayed production instructions can take machines offline and leave employees idle.

Scheduled breaks

Waiting time may also simply be the result of a scheduled break for an employee during the workday. Employees aren't machines, and they need breaks to avoid burnout. Waiting time may also be the result of periods where it's necessary to turn the equipment or machine off to prevent it from overheating. Scheduled maintenance for the equipment may also cause waiting time.

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Administrative failures

Poor decision-making and planning may result in unproductive time on the clock. For instance, a company may hire new employees when they expect a high demand for a new product. If this sales projection falls short, the company may experience over time because there are more employees than needed on the schedule.

Market dynamics

Another cause of waiting time is an unforeseen change in market dynamics, such as the entrance of a new competitor. In such instances, organisations may scale down production because of reduced consumer demand. Other market dynamics that can cause waiting time include cyclical fluctuations, employee strikes and economic recession.

Natural disasters

If you're working within industries that depend on certain weather conditions, such as shipping, trucking and mining, weather emergencies can greatly impact facility productivity. Unfortunately, all employees can do in such circumstances is wait out the storm. Delayed travel caused by unfavourable weather events often causes a chain reaction of delays for every organisation involved within the supply chain.

While waiting time represents periods of non-productivity, it may not necessarily be a detriment to the operations of a company. For instance, employees may be more productive when given regular breaks during their workday. Thus, companies purposely scheduling waiting time for employees may result in net gain, instead of a net loss, in total employee productivity.

Calculating waiting time

To calculate waiting time, you can simply subtract the actual working hours from the total standard hours. The difference is waiting time. It shows the number of hours that a company or an employee spends without getting anything done. Here's the formula:

  • Waiting time = Total standard hours - Actual working hours

For instance, say an employee has an eight-hour shift. They tracked seven hours and 30 minutes of productive work. This means that the employee had 30 minutes of waiting time, assuming they tracked everything accurately on a time basis.

Tips for reducing waiting time

Here are a few tips for reducing waiting time:

Improve communication lines

Inaccurate work instructions can result in waiting time. As a manager, it's important to make sure employees always have accurate, complete and accessible work instructions to perform their tasks. Consider using a work order chat app to streamline communication. This app keeps team messaging, private messaging and work order commenting in a centralised location.

Define what constitutes waiting time

It may be challenging to minimise waiting time without knowing your starting point. Consider taking the time to define what makes up waiting time for the company clearly. Determine what type of data to record and use a digital database system for tracking metrics. You can assess waiting time with other key performance indicators (KPIs) every month and identify metric patterns that point to potential problem areas.

Optimise workflows

While machine outages and downtime can be difficult to predict, most employee-related waiting time is the direct result of inefficient project planning and process optimisation. Here are some strategies for optimising workflows:

  • Create clear operating procedures: Wherever possible, set up systematic operating, maintenance and reporting procedures that are easily repeatable. This can enhance the predictability and consistency of the company's operations.

  • Create more balanced schedules: Another way to reduce waiting time is by accounting for periods of machine idle. Doing some simple changes, such as slight scheduling overlaps, may lead to greater machine uptime and less time lost on shift transfer.

  • Practise the lean construction principles: Taking a lean approach to operations means implementing new processes, identifying issues and refining the company's production process through continuous improvement.

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Be realistic

If you're a manager, expecting every single employee on the company's payroll to work non-stop for the entire workday is impossible. That's unrealistic and the company may soon face employee burnout and declining productivity. For instance, employees, especially those newly hired, usually struggle with adjusting to their new responsibilities, work culture and new environment. Instead of expecting peak performance all day, you can improve the company's onboarding processes so that new employees have a shorter adjustment period. You can also provide incentives to keep things interesting, such as frequent breaks or other non-disruptive leisure activities.

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