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

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Lean-Agile Leaders are lifelong learners who are responsible for the successful adoption of SAFe and the results it delivers. They empower and help teams build better systems by learning, exhibiting, teaching and coaching SAFe’s Lean-Agile principles and practices.

The philosophy of SAFe is simple: As the enabler for the teams, the ultimate responsibility for the adoption, success, and ongoing improvement of Lean-Agile development lies with an organization’s managers, leaders, and executives. Only they can change and continuously improve the systems in which everyone operates. Therefore, leaders must be trained in—and become trainers of—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 genuinely teaches, empowers, and engages individuals and teams to reach their highest potential.


SAFe Lean-Agile Leaders are lifelong learners and teachers who help teams build better systems through understanding and exhibiting the Lean-Agile Mindset and SAFe Principles. These leaders take the following actions:

#1 – Lead the Change

The work of steering an organization toward Lean and Agile behavior, habits, and results cannot be delegated. Instead, Lean-Agile leaders exhibit urgency for change, communicate it and build a plan for successful transformation. Leaders must also understand and manage the change process, and address problems quickly as they arise. Adopting Principle #2, Apply Systems Thinking, is critical to the success of the SAFe Implementation Roadmap.

#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. Eagerly read from the recommended reading list and on other topics. Share selected readings with others and sponsor book club events for the most relevant texts.

Allow people to solve their problems. Help them identify a given problem, understand the causes, and build Solutions that will be embraced by the organization. Support individuals and teams when they make mistakes, otherwise learning are 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 decision-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 others.

#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. Apply Agile Human Resource (HR) principles and practices.

Role of the Development Manager

Aligned with the principles of Lean and Agile development, SAFe emphasizes the value 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 are 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.

Also, self-organizing ARTs do not fund themselves or define their mission. That remains a management responsibility since it is an element of implementing the strategy. Much of this traditionally rests with the role of the development manager.  The adoption of Lean-Agile development does not eliminate the need for sound management. However, in SAFe management lies with 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

  • Help in building Agile Milestones and Roadmaps, as well as the building plans that enable them
  • Help develop, implement, and communicate the economic framework.
  • Participate in Inspect and Adapt workshops; support teams by helping them remove systemic impediments and implementing continuous improvement backlog items
  • Protect teams from distractions and unrelated or unnecessary work
  • Assist the Release Train and Solution Train Engineers with PI Planning readiness and Pre- and Post- PI Planning activities
  • Participate in PI planning, System Demo, and Solution Demo
  • Build partnerships with Suppliers, subcontractors, consultants, partners, and internal and external stakeholders
  • Provide other resources as necessary for teams and ARTs to successfully execute their Vision and roadmap
  • Reinforce the Essential SAFe practices
  • Identify delays in the system by facilitating or participating in value stream mapping



  • 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.

[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: 17 November 2017