What Is Idle Time?

May 24, 2022

What Does Idle Time Mean? 

Idle time refers to the period of time an asset is available for use but remains unproductive. Businesses also use the term to describe full-time employees who are “on the clock” but not working. Idle time, also referred to as waiting time, is the time when employees are unproductive.

Several scenarios can bring about idle time, including shipment delays, overstaffed scheduling, and employee confusion over standard operating procedures (SOPs)

According to a Harvard Business School study, at least 78 percent of employees find themselves waiting for further work instructions each week. Moreover,  unproductive periods cost businesses an estimated $100 billion per year. 


What Is the Difference between Idle Time and Downtime? 

Though both phrases point to an asset that is “out of order,” they have slightly different meanings. Downtime refers to any period when facility equipment is unavailable for use. Downtime means an asset is not in working order. Thus, the difference between the terms is the reason why an asset is unproductive. 

While equipment malfunctions are a common cause of downtime, they aren’t the only reason. Facility managers often schedule downtime to assign preventive maintenance (PM) tasks to maintenance technicians during non-business or non-peak production hours. For this reason, strategic operational managers track idle time and downtime separately.  

How to Calculate It

The formula is:

Idle Time = Scheduled Production Time – Actual Production Time 

Scheduled production time refers to the duration of time that management plans to run given equipment throughout a day, week, month, and/or year. Actual production time is the amount of time that equipment is actually running as intended. 

For example, say a maintenance technician clocks 6 hours of productive work over the course of an 8-hour shift on Monday. That means he experienced 2 hours of idle time. Additionally, let’s assume the warehouse needs to use a conveyor belt for 10 hours every day. Say it requires 15 minutes to power up and another 15 minutes to shut down. Additionally, the machine is turned off for 1 hour during a routine shift change. 

In this scenario, the conveyor belt would ideally run for 8.5 hours of scheduled production time every day. However, let’s say our second-shift operator arrives 1 hour late to work on Monday. His delay would result in an hour of idle time for the conveyor belt. 

What Are the Causes of Idle Time? 

An asset may be unproductive for several reasons, even though it’s technically available for use. Causes of delays can be both within and beyond management control. Common causes include:

  • Administrative Failures: Poor planning and decision-making can result in unproductive time on the clock. For example, a warehouse might hire new employees because they anticipate high demand for a new product. However, if its initial sales projections fall short, the warehouse will inevitably experience over time due to more workers than needed on the schedule. 
  • Production Line Issues: Organizations also experience idle time when they encounter production-related issues. Manufacturing facilities experience it when employees wait for the arrival of a shipment of raw materials. The longer it takes for the necessary materials to arrive, the more idle time the company experiences. Additionally, power failures, outages, and delayed production instructions can take machines offline and leave workers idle. 
  • Market Dynamics: Unforeseen changes in market dynamics, such as the entrance of a new competitor, can result in idle time. In such instances, organizations are forced to scale down production due to reduced consumer demand. Other market dynamics that can cause it are employee strikes, cyclical fluctuations, and economic challenges such as the COVID-19 supply-chain issues. 
  • Poor Onboarding Processes: Inefficient employee onboarding is an often overlooked contributor to idle time. For example, disorganized onboarding processes can negatively impact productivity while new hires familiarize themselves with company SOPs. 
  • Unexpected Personal Events: Unexpected employee absences due to emotional and physical stressors can also cause idle time.
  • Natural Disasters: Finally, if you’re working within industries that depend on certain weather conditions—mining, trucking, and shipping—weather emergencies can significantly impact facility productivity. Unfortunately, all teams can do in such instances is wait out the storm. Delayed travel caused by unfavorable weather events usually leads to a chain reaction of delays for every organization involved within the supply chain. 

What Are the Types of Idle Time? 

There are two types: 

  • Normal Idle Time: Refers to idle time that’s beyond management control. It includes planned downtimes for PM activities. Such tasks are standard practices that employees must engage in to keep businesses running. 
  • Abnormal Idle Time: In this instance, it is completely out of management’s control. It includes causes such as employee strikes and production supplies. 

Successful organizations proactively find ways to minimize abnormal idle time as part of ongoing process improvement programs. 

What Is an Example of Idle Time in Production? 

Examples include:

1. Vehicle Assembly

A vehicle assembly factory produces 100 cars within an eight-hour shift.  But on some days, the quality inspection and testing team can only process 50 cars per shift. When this happens, the assembly line remains idle until the facility’s quality inspection team can catch up. 

2. Shipping Containers

A shipping company experiences a delayed delivery at the port because of a sea storm. Consequently, its transportation network shares idle time until calmer waters return. At this point, workers can move the ship’s containers as planned. 

3. Software Development

Software development involves a team of individuals with varying specialties—user-experience designers, user-interface designers, front- and back-end developers, and full-stack developers—working toward the goal of building an application for a client. 

In this instance, certain workers will sometimes take breaks, thus causing idle time while others are productive. Data dependency sometimes dictates that one worker can’t do their job while another person is working on the project. 

3 Ways to Reduce Idle Time

It’s nearly impossible for organizations to run at 100 percent efficiency. Too many varying elements impede the goal of perfect operational workflows. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t take specific actions to reduce idle time and improve bottom lines. 

Here are three ways to reduce idle time:

  1. Define What Constitutes Idle Time: It’s difficult to minimize it without knowing your starting point. Take the time to clearly define what constitutes idle time for your unique organization. Determine the type of data you need to record and implement a digital database system for tracking metrics. Ideally, management should assess idle time with other key performance indicators (KPIs) monthly and investigate metric patterns that point to potential problem areas. 
  1. Improve Communication Lines: It’s essential to ensure teams always have complete, accurate, and accessible work instructions to carry out their work assignments. Using a work order chat app like MaintainX will streamline communication by keeping private messaging, team messaging, and work order commenting in a centralized location. 
  1. Maintain Your Assets: When you take care of your assets and employees, their productivity increases and idle time reduces. Again, a user-friendly CMMS platform, like MaintainX, can help organize asset data points for convenient retrieval when needed. 

You can further reduce it by improving processes, upleveling employee training programs, and enforcing effective preventive maintenance programs. 


Idle time includes the time when assets remain unproductive despite being available for use. Organizations can reduce it and cut costs, by identifying the root causes of unplanned equipment disruptions and implementing strategic solutions. The best way to track idle time patterns is with a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) like MaintainX.

Maintain provides busy managers with real-time updates of work order statuses, key performance indicators (KPIs), and inventory on hand. It also helps improve business practices with digital procedure templates, team messaging, and work order commenting. 

Caroline Eisner
Caroline Eisner
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