Lean Leadership and Systems Thinking

At Agile 2018, Al Shalloway presented a talk on Lean Leadership and Systems Thinking.


In Agile, the focus on self-organization, servant leadership, and self-motivation seems to make management unnecessary. The focus is on trust and respect.

Lean-thinking is based on leadership, systems-thinking, attending to time, a focus on quality and continuous improvement. Edwards Deming postulated that the system that people are in is responsible for 95%+ of the errors that occur. Although people are important, it is exactly because you can trust them and that they are self-motivated that the focus should be on creating a great environment in which they can thrive. Creating such an environment requires management and a systems-thinking point of view.

Lean provides an holistic view for the work done in an organization. However, Agile is as much about culture as it is about process, perhaps more so. What if you don’t have an Agile ‘culture’? Is there anything that we can do about it?

The role of the servant leader in Agile is to combine these two concepts of systems thinking and lean-management to improve the system on behalf of the people reporting to them. Our focus should be on creating great systems for self-motivated, trustworthy people.

Media and Resources

August 2, 2018
Al Shalloway | Recording | Slides (PDF)

As SAFe® has matured it has added additional levels, roles, artifacts, practices, … While providing practitioners more capabilities, it has also made it harder to understand and use SAFe. We have found that looking at SAFe from the perspective of the value streams in an organization it both becomes easier to understand and facilitates taking a systems-thinking approach.

This webinar discusses how to view SAFe from the perspective of aligning strategy, initiatives, business backlogs, product backlogs, program backlogs, ops and delivery into a series of interrelated steps. This ties together the many pieces of SAFe and provides a more effective context for each of them.

Resources mentioned in the talk

  • Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions, and Results. We highly recommend The Art of Action by Stephen Bungay for executives, management, and leadership who are responsible for transitioning their enterprises with Lean and Agile. We have created an authorized summary of the essential concepts from each chapter of this important book. Download the article (PDF).
  • Guardrails System. The Net Objectives Guardrails take the form of non-negotiable agreements made across the organization. Each agreement has a set of questions to consider to ensure that everyone is doing what was agreed to. The guardrails are grounded both in the intention of realizing Business value and in following known principles of Lean-Agile software development. The purpose of the guardrails is both for alignment and to keep people on the right path. They provide guidance to ensure that you are on course and to allow you to make decisions at a local level while ensuring you are still aligned to the rest of the value stream.
  • Minimum Business Increment. In the situations where the value of an enhancement or new product/service is reasonably know, the concept of an Minimum Business Increment (MBI) is useful. It focuses on the realization of business value quickly. It is not a reason to deliver less, it is a reason to deliver sooner.
  • Northwestern Mutual Case Study: A SAFe Implementation Retrospection. This article discusses Northwestern Mutual’s SAFe adoption from the perspective of the lead consulting company leading the adoption. It starts with how the implementation was done and, in particular, cover those things that were done that were not in SAFe at the time but were common practice for Net Objectives. It will discuss what worked, what could have been better, and what we would have done differently if we were to do it again. It closes with what we can learn from this engagement and provide some resources for further reading.
  • Systems thinking: If Russ Ackoff had given a TED Talk. Pretty much the best description of system thinking in about 12 minutes I’ve heard.