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



Lean-Agile leaders are responsible for the successful adoption of SAFe, and for the business results the Lean enterprise can deliver. These leaders are life-long learners who empower individuals and teams to build better software and systems by learning, exhibiting, teaching, and coaching SAFe’s Lean-Agile mindset, values, principles, and practices.

Why Lean-Agile Leaders?

An organization’s managers, leaders, and executives are ultimately responsible for the adoption, success, and ongoing improvement of Lean-Agile development. Only they can change and continuously improve the systems in which everyone operates. Moreover, only these leaders can create the environment that encourages high-performing Agile teams to flourish and produce value. Leaders, therefore, must internalize and model leaner ways of thinking and operating so that practitioners will learn from their example, coaching, and encouragement.

The journey to becoming a Lean enterprise is not simple or easy. As we’ll see below, many managers, decision makers, executives, and other and influencers have to offer a new approach to leadership. It will need to better teach, empower, and engage individuals and teams to reach their highest potential through Lean and Agile principles and practices.

Moreover, knowledge alone won’t be enough. Lean-Agile leaders do not simply support the transformation: They take an active role to lead the implementation of the new way of working. But that’s just the beginning. They then guide the activities necessary to understand and continuously optimize the flow of value through the organization. They organize and reorganize around value. They identify queues and excess Work in Process (WIP), they’re continually focused on eliminating waste and delays. They abolish demotivating policies and procedures in favor of inspiring and motivating others, and create a culture of relentless improvement that protects the resources required for teams to innovate.

As illustrated in Figure 1, Lean-Agile Leadership anchors the very foundation of the Framework.

Figure 1. Lean-Agile Leadership anchors the foundation of SAFe


Also, as Figure 1 illustrates, there are two primary responsibilities of Lean-Agile Leadership:

  1. Leaders must have the knowledge and ability to think and act as ‘Lean-thinking manager-teachers.’ This is the persistent skillset necessary to practice and teach Lean thinking.
  2. They must lead and sustain the new way by working by fostering and inspiring the organizational change needed. They drive the continuous journey of the Lean enterprise.

Lean-Thinking Manager-Teachers

The basic tenets of Lean challenge many of the aspects of traditional management theory and calls for a mindset that is foreign to most executives.

— Jacob Stoller [1]

Stoller’s quote reminds us that traditional management practices are insufficient for this expedition. Instead, the Lean enterprise depends on what Toyota calls Lean-thinking manager-teachers. These leaders understand Lean thinking and principles and, as part of their everyday work activities, and teach them to others. This is integral to who they are and what they do, affecting every aspect of their approach to helping teams build systems and solutions in a Lean and Agile manner.

In the SAFe context, these leaders adopt and exhibit a Lean-Agile mindset, reinforce the core values,  and apply SAFe Lean-Agile principles. Each is described in the sections below.

Reinforcing Core Values

Four core values define SAFe’s essential ideals and beliefs: alignment, built-in quality, transparency and program execution. At every opportunity, a leader’s behavior plays a critical role in communicating, exhibiting, and emphasizing them. Here are some suggestions for reinforcing these values:

  • Alignment. Communicate the mission. This means establishing and expressing the portfolio strategy and solution vision. Leaders must help organize the value stream and coordinate dependencies. They provide relevant briefings and participate in PI Planning. They help with backlog visibility and review and preparation, constantly checking for understanding.
  • Built-in quality. Demonstrate quality by refusing to accept or ship low-quality work. Support investments in capacity planning for maintenance and reduction of technical debt. This ensures that concerns from the entire organization—including UX, architecture, operations, security, compliance, and others—are part of the regular flow of work.
  • Transparency. Visualize all relevant work. Leaders take ownership and responsibility for errors and mistakes. That means they admit their own missteps while supporting others who acknowledge and learn from theirs. And they never punish the messenger. Instead, they celebrate success and learning.
  • Program execution. Participate as an active business owner in PI execution. Adjust scope as necessary. Celebrate high quality and program increments delivered on schedule. Aggressively remove impediments and demotivators.

Adopting and Exhibiting a Lean-Agile Mindset

The SAFe Lean-Agile Mindset is the combination of beliefs, assumptions, and actions of leaders and practitioners who embrace the concepts in the Agile Manifesto and the SAFe House of Lean.

This way of thinking is leadership’s intellectual foundation for adopting and applying SAFe principles and practices. As described in that article, there are two aspects of a Lean-Agile mindset.

  • Thinking Lean– Lean thinking is illustrated by the SAFe House of Lean. The roof represents the goal of delivering value. The pillars embody respect for people and culture, flow, innovation, and relentless improvement to support the goal. Lean-Agile Leaders provide the foundation on which everything else stands.
  • Embracing agility –The Agile Manifesto provides a value system and set of principles essential to successful Agile development. SAFe is built on the Agile values, principles, and methods as embodied by cross-functional Agile teams. Every leader must fully support and reinforce the intent and application of the values and principles of the manifesto.

Supporting  SAFe Lean-Agile Principles

As described in Lean-Agile Principles, SAFe is based on nine immutable, underlying Lean-Agile principles. These tenets and economic concepts inspire and inform the roles and practices of SAFe, influencing leadership behaviors and decision-making.

The principles are:

#1 – Take an economic view

#2 – Apply systems thinking

#3 – Assume variability; preserve options

#4 – Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles

#5 – Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems

#6 – Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue length

#7 – Apply cadence; synchronize with cross-domain planning

#8 – Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

#9 – Decentralize decision-making

Each is necessary to experience the personal, business, and economic benefits of applying SAFe. Moreover, these principles work together as a system; each informs the others, and the whole is far greater together than the sum of the individual principles.

Principles #8 and #9 are particularly relevant to leaders, as management has the responsibility and authority to establish the culture of an organization and create an environment that empowers and motivates knowledge workers. Each is worthy of a highlight, as described below.

#8 – Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers. As the article notes, we have the good fortune of working with some of the smartest people in the workforce—motivated and talented knowledge workers who build the world’s most important systems. It is hard to overstate the importance of the leader’s role in supporting these employees, and to help them avoid the many demotivating factors that have found their way into our traditional management habits. To this end, in addition to this article, please take a moment now to read this article on Agile HR. It lays out six larger themes to assist you as you continue to relentless improve the way you lead and manage all this talent.

#9 – Decentralize decision-making. Similarly, Principle #9 provides the guidance leaders need to delegate effective decision-making, and thereby accelerate the flow of value. In turn, this reinforces Principle #8, as empowered decision-making is a prerequisite to motivate knowledge workers.

Leading the SAFe Transformation

The methods used in successful transformations are all based on one fundamental insight: that major change will not happen easily for a long list of reasons.

—John Kotter

As we just described, being a Lean-thinking manager-teacher provides leaders with the thought processes and practical tools they’ll need to start building the Lean enterprise. The goal of achieving the shortest sustainable lead time is always clear: Flow, or the lack of it, is becomes apparent. Queues are discovered and analyzed. WIP is visible and managed. Waste and delays are eliminated at every turn.

But you as embark on a journey of significant organizational change — perhaps more significant than most of us have experienced in our careers — even those tools are not enough. For this part of the journey, leaders need to apply the tools of organizational change management and change leadership. Kotter [2] described eight steps in implementing successful change:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create the guiding coalition
  3. Develop the vision and strategy for change
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower employees for broad-based action
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture

Clearly, these steps require the active participation of leaders committed to the change. But even this is not enough: as Heath and Heath note in their book on change [3], leaders need to script the critical movesthat are needed to accomplish the change.

The Implementation Roadmap

Based on these insights, the SAFe Implementation Roadmap article series guides leaders on this particular journey, which is summarized in the Introductory Roadmap article and Figure 2 below.

Figure 2. The SAFe Implementation Roadmap

When you read the 12 articles that describe the steps in the Implementation Roadmap, you’ll notice how closely each aligns with Kotter’s blueprint. For example, the sense of urgency is often established in the many conversations that lead up to an organization reaching the tipping point and deciding to ‘go SAFe.’ Our next recommended action is to train a core group of Lean-Agile change agents and leaders who will form the “powerful guiding coalition.” The pattern continues throughout the roadmap and was intentionally designed to build the habits of successful organizational change into the model for SAFe transformation. This roadmap helps leaders ‘know the way’ as they drive for successful change.

Applying Transformational Leadership

Change models are beneficial, but Kotter and others have also recognized the critical role of leadership in overcoming the common barriers to successful change. One set of leader behaviors described in research as Transformational Leadership [4] has been shown to be particularly effective in leading this type of change, and is currently favored by many in the DevOps movement [5.6]. There are four primary aspects of transformational leadership, as illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Four Primary elements of transformational leadership

Each aspect plays an important role, both in the transformation and in sustaining and improving the Lean Enterprise.

Table 1. Illustrates the value of each in their contexts.

Leading the SAFe implementation Leading the Lean Enterprise
Vision Establish and communicate (repeatedly!) the rationale and the vision for change Present a compelling vision of the continuously-improving future, one that inspires others to lead and follow.
Authenticity This is a journey to the Lean Enterprise. Always be a lean-thinking manager-teacher. Be a role model for the core values and principles of the enterprise. Lead by example with integrity. Illustrate your humanness.
Growth Empower others to lead their elements of the transformation. Decentralize implementation decision-making. Cultivate people, develop leaders. Inspire, empower, and motivate. Illustrate real and genuine regard for direct reports and others.
Innovation Provide the freedom to explore how to organize and reorganize around the flow of value (teams, ARTs and value streams). Foster innovation and relentless improvement. Support IP iterations and other innovation events. Challenge status quo.

A substantial body of research has shown that the attributes represented by vision, authenticity, growth, and innovation provide leaders with the competencies they need to successfully drive the organizational changes required to become a high-performing Lean Enterprise. This is true for both the initial transformation and, perhaps even more importantly, the road beyond [7, 8].

Role of the SAFe Program Consultant

Even with these skills in place, however, we also understand that a more specific and “sufficiently powerful coalition” of change agents is needed [2]. While every leader plays a role in producing the change, SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs) are specifically trained and assigned for this task in the SAFe context. Their intrinsic motivation—combined with the training, tools, and courseware they will need—play critical roles in the successful implementation and sustainability of SAFe.

Role of the Traditional Manager in the SAFe Lean Enterprise

There is one last important discussion on the function of leadership in SAFe. Of all the roles affected, none is more changed than the traditional functional manager, i.e., development manager, engineering manager, program manager, quality, manager, compliance, etc.

SAFe emphasizes the value of self-organizing, cross-functional teams; it is the cornerstone of Agile development. This supports a leaner management infrastructure, with more empowered individuals and teams. Traditional, day-to-day employee instruction and direction are no longer required.  As a result, this challenges the role of executives who have been responsible for both managing development and fostering the personal and career growth of their direct reports. While Lean-Agile development does not eliminate the need for sound management, the approach of the Lean-thinking manager-teacher is different. This important topic is the entire subject of  The Evolving Role of Managers in Lean-Agile Development.


It’s no surprise that effective leadership is necessary for achieving any kind of significant organizational change. And this is not just any change: This is a shift to a persistent and relentlessly improving Lean enterprise, based on the fundamentals of Agile and Lean development. For this, we need leaders who know what they are trying to do, and how they are going to go about it. In others words, we need Lean-thinking manager-teachers who understand how to lead and sustain the change.


Learn More

[1] Stoller, Jacob. The Lean CEO: Leading the Way to World-Class Excellence . McGraw-Hill Education. Kindle Edition.

[2] Kotter, John P. Leading Change, With a New Preface by the Author. Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Heath, Chip; Heath, Dan. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Burns, James MacGregor. Transforming Leadership Grove/Atlantic, Inc. Kindle Edition.


[6] Forsgren, Nicole; Humble, Jez; Kim, Gene. Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations. IT Revolution. Kindle Edition.

[7] 2017 State of DevOps Report.

[8] Herold, David; Fedor, Donald; Caldwell, Steven; Liu, Yi. (2008) The Effects of Transformational and Change Leadership on Employees’ Commitment to a Change: A Multilevel Study.



Last update: August 29, 2018