Lean-Agile Leaders

It’s not enough that management commit themselves to quality and productivity, they must know what it is they must do.

Such a responsibility cannot be delegated.

—W. Edwards Deming

Lean-Agile Leaders Abstract

The philosophy of SAFe is simple: As the enabler for the teams, the ultimate responsibility for adoption, success, and ongoing improvement of Lean-Agile development lies with the Enterprise’s existing managers, leaders, and executives. Only they can change and continuously improve the systems in which everyone operates. To achieve this, leaders must be trained, and become trainers, in these leaner ways of thinking and operating. As Deming notes, “such a responsibility cannot be delegated”. Many need to offer a new style of leadership, one that truly teaches, empowers, and engages individuals and teams to reach their highest potential.

While some of these management roles and titles do not appear specifically on the Big Picture, they serve a critical function nonetheless by providing the personnel, resources, management, direction, and support necessary to help the enterprise achieve its mission. This article describes the principles of these Lean-Agile Leaders.


SAFe Lean-Agile Leaders are lifelong learners and teachers who help teams build better systems through understanding and exhibiting the Lean-Agile Mindset, SAFe Principles, and systems thinking. Such leaders exhibit the behaviors below.

#1 – Lead the Change

The work of steering an organization toward Lean and Agile behaviors, habits, and results cannot be delegated. Rather, Lean-Agile leaders exhibit urgency for change, communicate the need for the change, build a plan for successful change, understand and manage the change process, and address problems as they come up. They have knowledge of organizational change management and take a systems view with respect to Implementing the transformation.

#2 – Know the Way; Emphasize Lifelong Learning

Create an environment that promotes learning. Encourage team members to build relationships with Customers and Suppliers and expose them to other worldviews. Strive to learn and understand new developments in Lean, Agile, and contemporary management practices. Create and foster formal and informal groups for learning and improvement. Read voraciously from the recommended reading list and on other topics. Share selected readings to others and sponsor book club events for the most relevant texts.

Allow people to solve their own problems. Help them identify a given problem, understand the root causes, and build solutions that will be embraced by the organization. Support individuals and teams when they make mistakes, otherwise learning is not possible.

#3 – Develop People

Employ a Lean leadership style, one that focuses on developing skills and career paths for team members rather than on being a technical expert or coordinator of tasks. Create a team jointly responsible for success. Learn how to solve problems together in a way that develops people’s capabilities and increases their engagement and commitment. Respect people and culture.

#4 – Inspire and Align with Mission; Minimize Constraints

Provide mission and vision, with minimum specific work requirements. Eliminate demotivating policies and procedures. Build Agile Teams and trains organized around value. Understand the power of self-organizing, self-managing teams. Create a safe environment for learning, growth, and mutual influence. Build an Economic Framework for each Value Stream and teach it to everyone.

#5 – Decentralize Decision-Making

(See Principle #9 for further discussion.)

Establish a decison-making framework. Empower others by setting the mission, developing people, and teaching them to problem-solve. Take responsibility for making and communicating strategic decisions—those that are infrequent, long lasting, and have significant economies of scale. Decentralize all other decisions.

#6 – Unlock the Intrinsic Motivation of Knowledge Workers

(See Principle #8 for further discussion.)

Understand the role that compensation plays in motivating knowledge work. Create an environment of mutual influence. Eliminate any and all management by objectives (MBOs) that cause internal competition. Revamp personnel evaluations to support Lean-Agile principles and values. Provide purpose and autonomy; help workers achieve mastery of new and increasing skills.

Role of the Development Manager

As an instantiation of the principles of Lean and Agile development, SAFe emphasizes the values of nearly autonomous, self-organizing, cross-functional teams and Agile Release Trains. This supports a leaner management infrastructure, with more empowered individuals and teams and faster, local decision-making. Traditional, day-to-day employee instruction and activity direction is no longer required.

However, all employees still need someone to assist them with career development; set and manage expectations and compensation; and provide the active coaching they need to advance their technical, functional, individual, and team skills and career goals. They also have a right to serve as an integral member of a high-performing team.

In addition, self-organizing ARTs do not fund themselves or define their own mission. That remains a management responsibility, as it is an element of implementation of strategy.

Much of this responsibility traditionally falls to the traditional role of the development manager, and the adoption of Lean-Agile development does not abrogate their responsibilities. However, in SAFe these responsibilities fall to those who can adapt, thrive, and grow in this new environment.


The development manager (or engineering manager) for system development) is a manager who exhibits the principles and practices of Lean-Agile leadership as described above. Further, the manager has personal responsibility for the coaching and career development of direct reports, takes responsibility for eliminating impediments, and actively evolves the systems in which all knowledge workers operate. They have final accountability for effective value delivery as well. A summary of responsibilities is highlighted below.

Personnel and Team Development

  • Attract, recruit, and retain capable individuals
  • Build high-performance teams; establish mission and purpose for individuals and teams
  • Perform career counseling and personal development
  • Listen and support teams in problem identification, root cause analysis, and decision-making
  • Participate in defining and administering compensation, benefits, and promotions
  • Eliminate impediments and evolve systems and practices in support of Lean-Agile development
  • Take subtle control in assignment of individuals to teams; address issues that teams cannot unblock; make personnel changes where necessary
  • Evaluate performance, including team input; provide input, guidance, and corrective actions
  • Serve as Agile coach and advisor to Agile Teams
  • Remain close enough to the team to add value and to be a competent manager; stay far enough away to let them problem-solve on their own

Program Execution



  • Create an environment where the facts are always friendly
  • Provide freedom and safety so individuals and teams are free to innovate, experiment, and even fail on occasion
  • Communicate openly and honestly with all stakeholders
  • Keep backlogs and information radiators fully visible to all
  • Value productivity, quality, transparency, and openness over internal politics

Built-in Quality

Learn More

[1] Manifesto for Agile Software Development. http://agilemanifesto.org/.

[2] Reinertsen, Donald. The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development. Celeritas Publishing, 2009.

[3] Rother, Mike. Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results. McGraw-Hill, 2009.

[4] Liker, Jeffrey and Gary L. Convis. The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership: Achieving and Sustaining Excellence Through Leadership Development. McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Last update: 21 October 2015