Lean-Agile Leadership

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

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The Lean-Agile Leadership competency describes how Lean-Agile Leaders drive and sustain organizational change and operational excellence by empowering individuals and teams to reach their highest potential. They do this through leading by example, learning and modeling SAFe’s Lean-Agile mindset, values, principles, and practices, and leading the change to a new way of working.

Lean-Agile Leadership is one of the seven core competencies of Business Agility, each of which is essential to achieving Business Agility. Each core competency is supported by a specific assessment, enabling the enterprise to assess its proficiency. The Measure and Grow article provides these core competency assessments and recommended improvement opportunities.

Lean-Agile Leadership Courses


Event Venue Date
Leading SAFe® 6 (SA) Certification – Remote Course (Central Standard Time Zone) May-30-31, 2024
  • May 30, 2024 9:00 am


Event Venue Date
Implementing SAFe® 6.0 (SPC) Certification – Remote (Central Standard Time Zone)-May 21-24 , 2024
  • May 21, 2024 9:00 am
Implementing SAFe® 6.0 (SPC) Certification – Remote (Central Standard Time Zone)-June 18-21 , 2024
  • June 18, 2024 9:00 am

Why Lean-Agile Leaders?

An organization’s managers, executives, and other leaders are responsible for the adoption, success, and ongoing improvement of Lean-Agile development and the competencies that lead to business agility. Only they have the authority to change and continuously improve the systems that govern how work is performed. Moreover, only these leaders can create an 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 team members will learn from their example, coaching, and encouragement.

Achieving agility throughout the enterprise is neither simple nor easy. As described below, business agility requires a new approach to leadership. It starts with leaders exemplifying behaviors that will inspire and motivate the organization to pursue a better way of working. They set the example by coaching, empowering, and engaging individuals and teams to reach their highest potential through Lean and Agile principles and practices.

In short, knowledge alone won’t be enough. Lean-Agile leaders must do more than simply ‘support’ the transformation: they must actively lead the change, participating in and guiding the activities necessary to understand and continuously optimize the flow of value through the enterprise. Lean-Agile leaders:

  • Organize and reorganize around value
  • Identify and reduce long queues and excess Work in Process (WIP)
  • Continually focus on eliminating bottlenecks and delays
  • Eliminate demotivating policies and procedures
  • Inspire and motivate others
  • Create a culture of relentless improvement
  • Provide the space for teams to innovate

By helping leaders develop along three distinct dimensions, as illustrated in Figure 1, organizations can establish Lean-Agile leadership as a core competency:

Figure 1. The dimensions of lean-agile leadership

These dimensions are:

  1. Leading by Example – Leaders gain earned authority by modeling the desired behaviors for others to follow, inspiring them to incorporate the leader’s example into their personal development journey.
  2. Mindset and Principles – By embedding the Lean-Agile way of working in their core beliefs, decisions, responses, and actions, leaders model the expected norm throughout the organization.
  3. Leading Change – Leaders lead (rather than simply support) the transformation by creating the environment, preparing the people, and providing the necessary resources to realize the desired outcomes of the change.

The following sections explore these dimensions of Lean-Agile leadership in greater detail.

Leading by Example

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

Through their words and actions, leaders provide the organization with patterns of expected behaviors. The aggregation of those patterns determines the organization’s culture, whether good or bad. The most important and effective technique for driving the cultural change needed to transform to the new way of working is for leaders to internalize and model the behaviors and mindsets of business agility so that others can learn and grow by their example.

Author Simon Sinek underscores the importance of leading by example in his book Leaders Eat Last [1] with the following:

The leaders of companies set the tone and direction for the people. Hypocrites, liars, and self-interested leaders create cultures filled with hypocrites, liars, and self-interested employees. The leaders of companies who tell the truth, in contrast, will create a culture of people who tell the truth. It is not rocket science. We follow the leader.

By modeling the right behaviors, leaders can transform organizational cultures from the pathological (negative, power-oriented) and bureaucratic (negative, rule-oriented) patterns of the past to the generative (positive, performance-oriented) culture that is required for the Lean-Agile mindset to flourish. Figure 2 provides a comparison of the attributes of Westrum’s organizational culture model [2]. These same behaviors also build earned authority—power gained through trust, respect, expertise, or action—which engenders greater engagement and commitment to organizational aims than positional authority. Such leaders inspire others to follow their direction and to incorporate the leader’s example into their personal development journey.

Figure 2. Westrum’s organizational cultures model (adapted)

As we learn more about the challenges of the digital age and the critical competencies leaders need to guide the organization to greater business agility, it’s essential to understand that the best outcomes are achieved when leaders model behaviors that foster a generative culture.

What, then, are the behaviors that leaders should embrace to set the right example and build a generative culture? While the potential list of attributes could be long, the leader behaviors below form a solid foundation for this dimension of leadership.

Insatiable learning depicts how leaders engage in the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge and growth and encourage and support the same in others.

Authenticity requires leaders to model desired professional and ethical behaviors. Acting with honesty, integrity, and transparency, they are true to themselves and their beliefs.

Emotional competence describes how leaders identify and manage their emotions and those of others through self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

Courage is essential for leaders to guide their organizations through the rapidly changing dynamics of the digital age. It requires leaders to embrace vulnerability, take appropriate risks, and engage in difficult but necessary conversations to challenge the status quo.

Growing others encourages leaders to provide each employee’s personal, professional, and technical guidance and resources to assume increasing levels of responsibility and decision-making.

Decentralized decision-making moves the authority for decisions to where the information is; it prepares teams to make decentralized decisions by investing in their technical competence and providing organizational clarity with decision guardrails. [3].

These behaviors are critical to leading in the digital age, where business growth is fueled by an increased shift to instant access to information, entertainment, social and business connections, products, and services, predominantly via mobile and smart devices. This modern context requires mindsets and skills that can be significantly different from the past patterns of working and leading that were successful. If leaders fail to adapt to the rapidly changing demands of a digital economy, their organizations will be significantly disadvantaged.

Mindset and Principles

“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, author of The Lean CEO: Leading the Way to World-Class Excellence

Stoller’s quote is a reminder that traditional management practices are insufficient for the changes needed to achieve business agility. Instead, the Lean enterprise depends on what Toyota calls Lean-thinking manager-teachers. These leaders understand Lean thinking and principles and teach them to others in their everyday work activities. This is integral to who they are and what they do. It informs every aspect of their approach to helping teams throughout the organization work in a Lean and Agile manner as the expected norm.

But what if leaders don’t have that mindset yet? What is a ‘mindset’, and how can a mindset be changed?

Mindset Awareness and Openness to Change

A mindset is simply the mental lens through which we view the world around us. It is how the human brain simplifies, categorizes, and interprets the vast amounts of information it receives daily. We form our mindsets through a lifetime of structured learning (classes, reading) and unstructured lessons (life events, work experience). They reside in the subconscious mind and manifest themselves as deeply held beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and influences. Consequently, individuals are often unaware of how their mindsets influence how they carry out their responsibilities and interact with others. For example, many leaders develop beliefs through business school training and on-the-job experience grounded in legacy waterfall, stage-gate, and siloed ways of working.

So how can mindsets be changed? It begins with the awareness of how one’s current mindset was formed. It’s also vital to cultivate the belief that mindsets can be developed and improved (a ‘growth’ mindset, as illustrated in Figure 3). Leaders must remain open to the possibility that existing mindsets based on traditional management practices must evolve to guide the organizational change required to become a Lean enterprise. [4]

lean agile leadership
Figure 3. Adopting a new mindset requires a belief that new abilities can be developed with effort

Developing a New Mindset

With an increased awareness of current mindsets and an openness to doing the work required to change them, the question becomes, “Change them to what?” Leading the organization through the transformation needed to achieve business agility requires a mindset that reflects the core values and principles of Lean, Agile, and SAFe. This is developed by gaining intimate knowledge and applying these values and principles. It is reflected in how leaders routinely reference Lean-Agile principles and practices as part of carrying out their responsibilities, how they coach and mentor these behaviors in others, and how they promote Lean-Agile practices as the default way of working throughout the organization.

Let’s take a closer look at the three key elements that form the foundation of this new mindset: SAFe Core Values, the Lean-Agile Mindset, and SAFe Principles.

SAFe Core Values

SAFe’s essential ideals and beliefs are defined by alignment, transparency, respect for people, and relentless improvement. Leader behaviors play a critical role in communicating, exhibiting, and emphasizing these values and how they guide the organization’s journey to embracing agility.

Here are some suggestions for how leaders reinforce these values:

Alignment – Communicate the vision, mission, and strategy, and connect them to the portfolio work through well-formed strategic themes. Help organize the value stream and connect strategy to execution through the portfolio vision, lean budgets, and epics. Provide relevant briefings and participate in PI Planning. Help with backlog visibility, review, and preparation; regularly check for understanding.

Transparency – Visualize all relevant work. Take ownership and responsibility for errors and mistakes, using them as learning moments. Admit missteps while supporting others who acknowledge and learn from theirs. Never punish the messenger. Instead, celebrate learning. Create an environment where the facts are always friendly and transparent. Ensure everyone throughout the organization has ready access to needed information.

Respect for people – Treat people with authentic trust and respect. Value diverse opinions and viewpoints. Have genuine care and concern for the growth and development of others by providing coaching, mentoring, training, and enriching experiences. Extend respect to internal and external customers as well as partners and suppliers.

Relentless improvement – Provide priority, visibility, and resources to improvement efforts. Promote a problem-solving culture of ‘everyone improving all the time.’ Encourage consistency in conducting retrospectives and following through with improvements identified as part of the Problem-Solving Workshop during Inspect & Adapt (I&A). Protect time and space for innovation, especially during the Innovation and Planning (IP) iteration.

Lean-Agile Mindset

The genesis of SAFe was to develop guidance for enterprises on how to apply the principles and practices of Lean and Agile in the world’s largest organizations. A Lean-Agile Mindset requires leaders to learn, embrace, and model both Lean and Agile in their behaviors and support adoption by the enterprise. Figure 4 illustrates the key concepts of each discipline.

Figure 4. Lean Thinking principles and the values of the Agile Manifesto

Lean Thinking – Lean is a set of principles and practices for efficient manufacturing and operations that grew out of the Toyota Production System developed in post-WWII Japan. It focuses on problem-solving and continuous improvement to increase quality and eliminate waste. Adapted to product development by Leffingwell [5], Poppendieck [6], and others, the principles of Lean Thinking illustrate the goal of delivering value by precisely specifying value by product, identifying the Value Stream for each product, making value flow without interruptions, letting the customer pull value from the producer, and pursuing perfection. Leaders create the environment for Lean Thinking by internalizing these principles and exemplifying them in their words, actions, and decision-making process.

Agile – Agile was born from a collaboration of 17 thought leaders in software development who met in 2001 to seek alternatives to the documentation-driven, heavyweight software development processes that were common at the time. It includes four values (shown in Figure 4) and twelve principles as reflected in the Agile Manifesto. Agile is known for delivering iterative and incremental value in the form of working software by promoting face-to-face interaction frequently between developers, customers, and cross-functional, self-organizing teams. Agile has since been adapted and embraced in many non-software development contexts.

The Lean-Agile Mindset article describes how Lean and Agile are at the heart of SAFe and are supported by many articles in the Framework that explain how to implement Lean-Agile practices at scale. Many great courses, books, websites, and videos form a rich set of resources that Lean-Agile leaders should explore to deepen their understanding.

SAFe Principles

SAFe is based on ten immutable, underlying principles. These tenets and economic concepts inspire and inform the roles and practices of SAFe, influencing leader behaviors and decision-making.

The principles are:

Figure 5. The SAFe Lean-Agile Principles

Agility is principally about mindset, not practices.

― Jim Highsmith, Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products

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