The questions is ‘Does the group include enough proven leaders to be able to drive the change process?’

—John Kotter

Train Executives, Managers, and Leaders

This is article three in the SAFe® Implementation Roadmap series. Click here to view the entire roadmap.

In the previous Implementation Roadmap article, Train Lean-Agile Change Agents, we described the three steps needed to create a guiding coalition:

  1. Train a number of Lean-Agile change agents as SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs)
  2. Train executives, managers, and other leaders
  3. Charter a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE)

We described how SPCs—acting as change agents—can ignite transformation within an enterprise. But they alone do not constitute a “sufficiently powerful guiding coalition” for change. For that, other stakeholders and senior executives must step in, step up, and lead the change.

After all, as Deming noted, “It is not enough that management commit themselves to quality and productivity, they must know what it is they must do.” In this article, we’ll describe the second part of the coalition—the need and mechanism to train executives, managers, and leaders.


Strong leadership is needed to successfully implement any change in an organization. In the context of SAFe, some of these leaders will provide direct and ongoing sponsorship for the change by participating in the LACE—while others will be directly involved in implementing SAFe, or leading, managing, and influencing the other players in the transformation. Their role could include participating directly in launching Agile Release Trains (ARTs). Or, it could mean that they will work at higher levels to eliminate impediments that arise in the company’s current governance, culture, and practices. All of these stakeholders need the knowledge and skills to lead—rather than follow—the implementation.

Exhibit the Lean-Agile Mindset

To effectively implement SAFe, and to provide the inspiration for relentless improvement, the enterprise’s leaders must embrace the Lean-Agile Mindset. This includes:

  • Thinking Lean – Much of the thinking in Lean is represented in the SAFe House of Lean icon. It is organized around six key consticon-thumbnail-lean-agileructs. The roof represents the goal of delivering value. The pillars support that goal via respect for people and culture, flow, innovation, and relentless improvement. Lean leadership provides the foundation upon which everything else stands.
  • Embracing agility – SAFe is built entirely on the skills, aptitude, and capabilities of Agile teams and their leaders. And while there is no one definition of what an Agile method is, the Agile Manifesto provides a unified value system that helped introduce Agile practices into mainstream development.

Putting these concepts into practice has proven to be a powerful recipe, but when leaders support the Lean-Agile mindset only through words and not actions, their efforts are quickly recognized as a half-hearted attempt at change. When a leader’s actions don’t match their words, it can produce the exact opposite of the intended effect, which is to harden people against change. When that happens, the journey will end before it begins, without leading to the personal or economic benefits of SAFe.

Apply Lean-Agile Principles

icon-thumbnail-principlesFor an organization to successfully integrate SAFe, management must understand and reinforce its values. Leaders are expected to embrace and apply the nine principles that underlie SAFe, as highlighted in Figure 1 and in its accompanying SAFe article, SAFe Principles.

1-Take an economic view2-Apply systems thinking3-Assume variability; preserve options4-Build incrementally with fast integrated learning cycles5-Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems6-Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths7-Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning8-Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers9-Decentralize decision making

Figure 1. The SAFe Lean-Agile Principles

The Responsibilities of SAFe Lean-Agile Leaders

SAFe suggests seven specific activities, outlined in the Lean-Agile Leaders article, that leaders can use to improve business outcomes. They are summarized below:

  • Lead the change – Exhibit and express the urgency for change. Communicate the need and build a plan for successful change. Then, understand and manage the change process, addressing problems as they arise.
  • Know the way; emphasize lifelong learning – Create an environment that promotes learning. Strive to learn and understand new developments in Lean, Agile, and contemporary management practices.
  • Develop people – Employ a Lean leadership style that focuses on developing skills and career paths for team members rather than on being a technical expert or coordinator of tasks.
  • Inspire and align with mission; minimize constraints – Provide the mission and vision with minimum specific work requirements. Eliminate demotivating policies and procedures. Build Agile teams and ARTs organized around Value Streams.
  • Decentralize decision-making – Take responsibility for making and communicating strategic decisions—those that are infrequent and long-lasting, and have significant economies of scale. Decentralize all other decisions.
  • Establish a decision-making framework – Empower others by setting the mission, developing people, and teaching them problem-solving skills.
  • Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers – Provide purpose and autonomy. Help workers to continually master new skills.

Learning New Skills

All of the above raises a question: How do leaders learn these new skills? The two-day class, Leading SAFe®: Leading the Lean-Agile Enterprise with the Scaled Agile Framework is designed for this purpose.

This course teaches leaders the SAFe Lean-Agile mindset, principles and practices, and the most effective leadership values for managing the new generation of knowledge workers. They will also learn how to:

  • Execute and release value through ARTs
  • Build large systems with the Large Solution Level
  • Build an Agile portfolio
  • Lead a Lean-Agile transformation at enterprise scale

It’s important to understand that this class is just the beginning of the journey. As Bill Gates reminds us, “The moment you stop learning is also the one in which you will stop leading.” Wise advice for anyone wanting the full benefits that are achievable through SAFe. To this end, the class provides a recommended reading list and many other activities and exercises to help emerging Lean-Agile Leaders master these new skills.

To test their knowledge, attendees have the opportunity to take an exam, and upon passing, become Certified SAFe® Agilists (SAs). This gives them access to the SAFe community platform, which hosts various assets, such as training videos and a dedicated forum for sharing knowledge.

Moving Forward

By making the first three ‘critical moves,’ in the SAFe Implementation RoadmapReaching the Tipping Point, Training Lean-Agile Change Agents, and Training Executives, Managers, and Leaders—the enterprise is well on the path toward success. There is, however, one more step needed to complete that powerful guiding coalition: charter and operate a LACE. That is the topic of the next article in this series.



Learn More

[1] Knaster, Richard and Dean Leffingwell. SAFe Distilled, Applying the Scaled Agile Framework for Lean Software and Systems Engineering. Addison-Wesley, 2017.

Additional Resources

To learn more about Leading SAFe, and to find a class near you, click here.

Last update: 7 October 2017