Mid-Management in the Lean-Agile Enterprise: Competencies Required

September 18, 2009 — Posted by Guy Beaver

There are many catch-phrases and metaphors used in the Agile space to try to define the role of management [1]. Examples include "servant-leader", "Chickens not Pigs", facilitator, motivator, etc. After all, the notion of "self-organization" can easily be construed to mean no management required. Many Agile practitioners handle this dilemma by focusing on traits of good leadership, and implying that instead of focusing on competencies based on principles and practices, the successful Agile manager only needs to focus on aggregating the traits of a good leader, such as coaching and motivating teams, supporting (not directing) teams, leading (not assigning). While these traits are all valuable, they are not drivers for the successful Lean-Agile manager. Instead these traits are observable outcomes of management properly applying principles and practices to a complex organization. Instead of seeing management as the problem, I've found that certain competencies must be mastered and practiced by managers in order for Agility to take hold and grow in a Lean-Agile enterprise. This blog helps define competencies that must be mastered before the traits of good Agile management begin to emerge.

By mid-management, I am referring to the layer of managers from Project Manager to Senior Manager to Director. So what are the competencies that managers should learn in order to transition to an effective Lean-Agile project manager? I think the foundation was laid in David Anderson's excellent book "Agile Management for Software Engineering: Applying the Theory of Constraints for Business Results [2]." This book makes the case for competencies based on understanding established fields of knowledge including Theory of Constraints and Lean Principles and Practices such as (Lead Time, Focus on Quality, Just-in-Time, Identifying Flow, and more). By studying and understanding these competencies, a clearer view of the drivers and focus areas begins to emerge that can allow management to avoid confusion and mistakes, and actually drive the successful transition of a software engineering enterprise.

Here is a short list of the key focus areas that Lean-Agile Managers should embrace and master, but if I had to condense this into a sound bite, it would be this:  

The Lean-Agile Management competencies are about understanding the relationships between queues and workflows, and learning how to manage them.

Competencies for Lean-Agile Managers

  1. Value Stream Transparency
  2. Limit work to capacity
  3. Minimize WIP
  4. Eliminate Waste
  5. Focus on Quality

I'll take them one at a time and break down some specific areas of responsibility that managers must embrace and be accountable for in order to lead a Lean-Agile enterprise.

Value Stream Transparency

This competency is critical for any of the other competencies to be understood. By value stream, I mean highest level flow of identified business and operational needs (pulled by business value and client value). This "flow" is really the end-to-end transformation of discovered business need to solution delivered. The Poppendieck's refer to this as "concept to cash [3]." Management is accountable for identifying this value stream, and making it transparent to the entire organization. This is best accomplished by Visual Controls that bring transparency to flow, pull, work-in-process, bottlenecks, and waste. For more details, see the chapter on Visual Controls [4] in our upcoming book, Lean-Agile Software Development: Achieving Enterprise Agility [5].

Limit Work to Capacity

Lean's view is that the most important resource is the creativity and problem solving capacity in our people. To create an environment that effectively utilizes this resource, we need to respect the fundamental laws of capacity utilization, which reveal that our ability to move through a discovery process is optimized if we don't overload our resources with work. In terms of the value stream, this means that the time required completing work increases and becomes less predictable when we approach fully loaded resources. As we approach full capacity (everyone busy), cycle time of fully completed work increases, and the ability to handle discoveries becomes more unpredictable. The competency required by management is the protection of this capacity when committing teams to work. This is best done when the value stream is transparent, and flow impact can be quickly shown when teams are overloaded.

Minimize WIP

"Work-in-process" (WIP) is a critical focus point for management. This is often blatantly ignored by management, and the reason given is that it is inefficient, because of the incorrect belief that the best way to increase productivity is to "keep everyone busy." Keeping people busy often drives the reasoning behind allowing more work to be started while other work is still in process. As a management competency, we need to understand that Minimizing WIP reduces cycle time, creates opportunities for collaboration, and brings more visibility to bottlenecks. For more details, refer to previous blogs [6]

Eliminate Waste

Waste in software delivery is mostly hidden in the form of delays, and building unneeded features. Once the value stream is made visible, work is limited to the capacity of the team, and WIP is reduced, impediments to flow begin to appear. The Lean-Agile manager needs to continuously look for waste in these areas, and focus on the entire value stream to find bottlenecks and delays. Some delays that are common are delays in time between requirements written and solution built, delays in time between writing code and testing code, delays in integrating multiple tiers.

Focus on Quality

The key driver to Enterprise Agility involves creating a stream of high value delivery to meet the needs of changing business opportunities. This must be sustainable. A key driver in building this sustainability is moving the organization from focusing on process, to instead focusing on a workflow that builds in quality. We lead this with validation. From client pull, we establish validation criteria that permeates down to every step of the workflow in the value stream. Management needs to hold the team accountable for quality (not just the QA organization), and the entire team must transition to test-first approach. For more details, see the "The Role of QA in Lean-Agile Software Development" [7]

For Lean thinking to take root, mid-management must have clear understanding of these competencies and the principles that define why they work.

Can you see and manage your queues?


  1. see for example, The Managers Role in Agile
  2. Agile Management for Software Engineering, David Anderson
  3. Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash, Mary and Tom Poppendieck
  4. Visual Controls and Information Radiators for Enterprise Teams
  5. Lean-Agile Software Development: Achieving Enterprise Agility, Shalloway, Beaver, & Trott
  6. The Case for One-Piece-Flow, Guy Beaver
  7. The Role of QA in Lean-Agile Software Development, Shalloway, Beaver, & Trott
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About the author | Guy Beaver

Guy Beaver was VP of Enterprise Engagements and a Senior Consultant. He is a seasoned technology executive known for building Lean organizations that are driven by business priorities. With 30+ years experience in Financial Services, Aerospace, Health Care and eCommerce, his technology accomplishments include managing enterprise web development and delivery for world class transaction systems (16 Million users), large data center transitions, and SaaS operational excellence utilizing Lean IT practices. He is skilled at organizational change and is the co-author of Lean-Agile Software Development: Achieving Enterprise Agility.


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