The Role of Management in SAFe

June 21, 2017 — Posted by Al Shalloway

I was asked to chime in on a discussion group about the role of Management in SAFe and as I was writing it up I thought it’d come out better as a blog.

I believe the role of manager in Agile has been ignored (the Agile Manifesto), vilified (chickens and pigs) and then to the other extreme transformed (they should be leaders).  In my mind, all three of these is not the role of first line managers.  I'll first point out the irony that Scrum was inspired by an article called The New New Product Develop Game by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in 1986.  Most people in the Agile community have heard of this.  However, two years later, Ikujiro Nonaka wrote another article on the role of management called Toward Middle-Up-Down Management: Accelerating Information Creation.  This article is significantly less well known.

The essence of Middle-Up-Down management is that middle management looks up to the business stakeholders to see the direction the company needs to take.  They then create the environment and workflow for the developers (down the management hierarchy) to work in. The doers need to self-organize within this environment.  In other words, management’s role is to create an environment within which the does can implement the business strategy.

What’s been missing in Agile until Kanban and SAFe (and not saying either of these are perfect) is systems-thinking as a foundation.  LeSS mentions it but does really drive from it.  An understanding of systems thinking is critical at scale.  One of its foundations is that the system causes most of the problems.  While people need to self-organize, they have to do within the context of an eco-system that helps them align around the delivery of business value.  This is the intention of management within SAFe - create an environment within which people can effectively work by taking a systems thinking approach.

Removing managers from the equation ignores that fact that there is a great deal of tacit knowledge about how value streams run across an organization.  If the organization is siloed, the need for visibility across the silos is even more important.  Saying managers need to be leaders sounds good but ignores the fact that management of the environment within which the value streams work is required.  

As Deming put it in The New Economics –

A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system. The aim must include plans for the future. A system must be managed. It will not manage itself. Left to themselves, components become selfish, competitive, independent profit centers, and thus destroy the system. 

The fact that people don't need to be managed does not mean there is not a role for management.  The role of management is to manage the system.  Ironically, in my mind, this is the ultimate respect for people - give them a good environment and clarity of what they are supposed to do and acknowledge they do not need to be managed.  Unfortunately, many people implementing SAFe do not understand the Lean principles underneath it.  Although many of them are stated in the SPC and Leading SAFe training, a quick quote by Deming or Reinertsen is insufficient for understanding. What often happens then is that management takes on the role of ensuring people follow SAFe.  This is not SAFe’s intent, but it is the path that is often taken. Managers need to be trained in what is needed and they need to lead the organization by changing the management system of the organization to allow for better workflows and visibility.

Al Shalloway

CEO, Net Objectives

 

 

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With over 40 years of experience, Alan is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, SAFe, Scrum and agile design.



        

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