Swiss society has long had a reputation for running as efficiently as the clockwork it produces – its 19 billion Swiss franc watch and clock industry dates back to the 1500s.

Time and time again, travellers to Switzerland report back that Swiss efficiency truly does exist. But what exactly does it mean for a country to be efficient? And does Switzerland’s obsession with time really help its public and private institutions run more effectively?

In a 2011 ranking of the world’s most efficient countries by Nomura, the Japanese bank, Switzerland came in first place. In this case, the metric for efficiency was the amount of energy a country requires to churn out $1 million of gross domestic product (GDP). Since Switzerland’s top industries are financial services and high-tech manufacturing, the country only required 90 tons of oil for its economy to make that much money. Japan, another country globally thought of as very efficient, followed closely in second, with 99 tons needed for the same result. The world’s least efficient country, according to Nomura, is Russia, where the country’s cold climate and massive size (about 6.6 million sq miles) requires 1,952 tons of oil to pump out a million dollars of GDP.

But that’s not likely what visitors are talking about when they marvel at how efficiently things run in Switzerland. Instead, they refer to a culture that’s extremely tuned in to the notion of time. The importance of punctuality in Swiss society is rarely disputed. In business, tardiness is particularly frowned upon. Appointments are scheduled far in advance and meetings follow strict timetables. The London-based company Communicaid, which specializes in international cultural training for businesses, advises business travellers to Switzerland to keep small talk to a minimum during meetings and conferences, and to always stay mindful of the time.

In the workplace, lunch is universally taken at exactly noon for exactly one hour, and coffee breaks are taken at 9 am and 4 pm. According to the relocation services company Interdean International Relocation, work and leisure time rarely overlap for the Swiss. The workday typically starts right at 8 am and ends right at 5:30 pm. Weekends and holidays are meant to be spent with families, not spent finishing up work.

Likewise, time at the office is highly valued. This year, the Swiss even voted against a referendum that would increase the number of annual vacation days from four weeks to six weeks per year, since business interests argued that this would negatively impact the country’s economic efficiency.

Beyond merely a cultural quirk, punctuality may have economic benefits. Studies have shown that chronic lateness has cost countries such as Ecuador billions per year.

Swiss timeliness is at its height with transportation. Trains and buses always run on time – arriving at the exact minute that the schedule prescribes. Transportation is also very well connected, with all forms of public transport – rail, bus, tram and even ferry – using one integrated ticketing system. The Swiss Federal Railways has improved efficiency in recent years too, by using double-decker trains and increasing its trip frequency. Most travellers report that using public transportation to get around the city is easier, cheaper and faster than driving. And for folks who still want some independence around town, at train stations, visitors can rent bikes or electric cars via bike sharing and car sharing services.