What Is the Role of Middle Management in Lean and Agile?

Frequently, middle managers have struggled to find their place in an Agile transformation. If we add Lean to the mix, it becomes easier to see the role that these managers need to play. Maintaining flow and increasing the capacity of the team are the two primary contributions that a middle manager can make.

Main Points

  • The reasons why middle managers struggle to find their place in Agile transformations.
  • The opportunities for a middle manager to play a constructive role.
  • The measures by which the middle manager can assess his or her contribution.

Middle Managers Need to Look at the Bigger Picture of Management

Some of the complaints among middle managers in the thick of an Agile transformation are all too familiar:

  • “I feel sidelined. What do I do, now that the team governs itself?”
  • “I have no idea what the team is doing.”
  • “Am I out of a job?”

While these concerns are natural, they’re often exaggerated. Agile does not specify a role for middle managers, focusing instead on activity within the team. However, that is not to say that managers do not have an important role to play from the outside of the team, supporting the team in ways that the team cannot help itself.

Management Isn’t Just Control

The primary source of this anxiety is a very narrow concept of management, focused on operational control. Waterfall certainly fostered this emphasis, since the complexity of Waterfall projects threatened constantly to put projects off schedule and at risk. Therefore, managers saw their role as giving primary direction to team members. Given the benefit of their greater experience and authority, presumably, managers could help avoid catastrophe.

Much of this “control” was actually illusory, and the situation led managers to overlook other aspects of their job. Since there was never enough time for all the direction that needed to be done (including whether team members actually followed the instructions they received), managers had very little bandwidth left over for other activities, such as career development of their employees, keeping ahead of technology and process trends, integrating the team into the larger value stream, and other activities that the team had neither the time nor the perspective to handle on its own. The control function of middle management can become so overwhelming that many managers do not even understand that these functions are also part of their job description.

Lean Managers for Agile Teams

While Agile by itself does not specify a role for the middle manager, a combination of Lean and Agile can provide that missing picture. Middle managers can focus on two important aspects of the team’s work:

  1. Flow. While the team might be better equipped to manage flow within its boundaries, flow in the larger value stream is harder for teams to address. Additionally, middle managers can help the team get resources (tools, process changes, etc.) that enhance flow, both within and outside the team.
  2. Capacity. There is more to a team’s productivity than just velocity. Teams also have a capacity, their ability to take on particular kinds of work. Managers also help the team understand the constraints under which they operate (for example, security rules), and how best to manage those constraints (to continue the example, getting temporary help from a security expert versus increasing security expertise within the team).

Lean Measurement of Middle Management Effectiveness

Lean also provides a way to judge how effectively a manager is helping the team. One way to describe feedback and adjustment, a major concern in Lean, is the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop. Managers can assess how effectively they are helping the team, without controlling team members directly, by looking at the time the team needs to transit each part of the OODA loop, and how successfully it does so.

For example, teams may founder when faced with unfamiliar challenges, and experience hesitation about deciding on an approach. Here is where a manager’s experience with these challenges may be an important resource. Even if the manager has not faced, say, a particularly obscure architectural challenge, he or she may have learned some successful strategies for how to assess and choose among architectural challenges. In this consulting role, the manager may help the team improve the orient and decide portions of their OODA loops.

Other Lean measures, such as cost of delay, present other opportunities for managers to demonstrate their contribution to the team. Even more importantly, these measures can help demonstrate their effectiveness beyond the team, in helping the team work with the rest of the value stream more effectively.


Middle managers are justified in feeling anxious about Agile transformation, since Agile does not describe a role for them. Lean, with its emphasis on the value stream, constraints, cycle time, and value, can help define a role for middle management, and provide ways to measure and communicate the contribution to Agility that managers can make.