When I’m teaching a team about Kanban I follow the premise of having different classes of service. I often start them with classes such as Standard, urgent, intangible or date driven. I’m not overly picky on what labels are applied as long as the team is thinking about these as they work day to day.

This week one of my customers made a slip of the tongue and called intangibles; expendables. I found this slip fairly ironic yet telling as it seems to be a very common sentiment. It’s too easy for leaders and teams to get caught focusing solely on the things their customer’s are asking for. But have you considered the impact of doing this?

The dictionary definition of these two words are:

Intangible: unable to be touched or grasped; not having physical presence

Expendable: of little significance when compared to an overall purpose, and therefore able to be abandoned

The idea of different classes of service is to aid the team in planning their work on a weekly and daily basis. A standard item would be handled as first in first out. An urgent item would break the rules and move to completion ASAP. The idea of intangibles is to represent lower priority items on the kanban board, and the team ensures they get done just at a slower pace than the other items.

Unfortunately what I see happen most often is to continually ignore this class of service. The most common sentiment is that a team is too busy delivering a project to be able to take these on. I often hear how we’ll get to them soon. My guess is this sentiment often is very tangible as management is unwilling to give the team a little white space to do these things. But at what cost?

These intangible items might be compared to changing the oil on your car, or cleaning out the interior on a regular basis. What happens if you don’t do those things? I know when I neglect cleaning my car once in a while it becomes an unpleasant wasteland of debris and dust. It’s almost embarrassing when I give someone a ride as I need to clear the clutter just so they can get in. If I were to neglect changing the oil what do you think will eventually happen to the engine? Right … it’ll wear down in ways to limit it’s life, or worse yet just simply seize up and then I’m stuck. Although there is a cost to doing these things, there is a higher cost to not doing these seemingly intangible items.

If we don’t look after the intangibles eventually there will be lots of debris laying around or worse yet your system’s engine will seize. If you don’t do the small things to improve how you deliver to your customer, how do you expect to ever improve? If you don’t spend time learning something new, wouldn’t you be worried about becoming stagnant and unable to deliver the next feature? If you don’t install that upgrade eventually you’re not going to be able to deliver the feature your customer is asking for.

Tip:

As a team leader/manager work with your team to identify the intangible items around them. Then work with your team to set a goal for intangibles to establish how many the team will have on the board at any time, and how many they will complete in a given period of time. Then have them measure these things to see if the goals are realistic and whether they’re accomplishing them. If you don’t be prepared to pay higher price in the future.

One of the more effective teams I’ve coached set goals for their intangibles. If memory serves me right they wanted to always have 6 on their board at any time, and complete 3 of them every week. When and how they happened in that week was up to the team. For them this ensured they didn’t make intangibles; expendable.

Not using Kanban? Same thing. If you’re using Scrum perhaps it’s the introduction of x intangibles into each sprint. If you’re using waterfall, just ensure you find a way in your busy schedule to ensure these things get done on a regular basis.

Regardless of how you do it just don’t make your intangibles expendable.

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