Lean-Agile Mindset

It all starts with a Lean-Agile Mindset.

—SAFe authors

Lean-Agile Mindset Abstract

SAFe is based on a number of newer paradigms in modern systems and software engineering, including Lean and systems thinking, product development flow, and Agile development. As reflected at the Team Level, Agile provides the tools needed to empower and engage teams to achieve unprecedented levels of productivity, quality, and engagement. But a broader and deeper Lean-Agile Mindset is needed to support Lean and Agile development at scale across the entire Enterprise.

Thinking Lean: Much of the thinking in Lean is represented in the SAFe “House of Lean” icon. It is organized around six key constructs. The “roof” represents the goal of delivering Value, the “pillars” support that goal via Respect for People and Culture, Flow, Innovation, and Relentless Improvement. Lean Leadership provides the foundation on which everything else stands.

Embracing Agility: In addition, SAFe is built entirely on the skills, aptitude, and capabilities of Agile Teams and their leaders. And while there is no one definition of what an Agile method is, the Agile Manifesto provides a unified value system that has helped inaugurate Agile methods into mainstream development.

Together, these create the Lean-Agile Mindset, part of a new management approach and an enhanced culture, one that provides the leadership needed to drive a successful transformation, and one helps both the individuals and businesses achieve their goals.


The SAFe House of Lean

While initially derived from Lean manufacturing [1], the principles and practices of Lean thinking as applied to software, product, and systems development are now deep and extensive. For example, Ward [2], Reinertsen [3], Poppendieck [4], Leffingwell [5], and others have described aspects of Lean thinking that put many of the core principles and practices into a product development context. In combination of these factors, we present the SAFe House of Lean, as illustrated in Figure 1, which is inspired by “houses” of Lean from Toyota and others.

Figure 1. The SAFe House of Lean
Figure 1. The SAFe House of Lean

The Goal – Value

The goal of Lean is inarguable: to deliver the maximum customer value in the sustainably shortest lead time, while providing the highest possible quality to Customers and society as a whole. High morale, safety, and customer delight are further tangible targets and benefits.

Pillar 1 – Respect for People and Culture

SAFe is a systematic framework for implementing Lean-Agile development at scale, but it does not instantiate itself, nor does it perform any real work. People do all the work. Respect for people and culture is a fundamental value of the SAFe House of Lean. People are empowered to evolve their own practices and improvements. Management challenges people to change and may even indicate what to improve, but the teams and individuals learn problem-solving and reflection skills, and they make the appropriate improvements.

Culture is the driving force behind this behavior. To evolve a truly Lean organization, the culture will need to change. In order for that to happen, the organization and its leaders must change first. And culture and people are not solely an internal construct. The culture of the organization extends to long-term relationships with Suppliers, partners, Customers, and the broader community that supports the Enterprise.

Where there is urgency for positive change, improvements in culture can be achieved gradually by, first, understanding SAFe values and principles; second, implementing SAFe practices; and third, delivering positive results. Changes to culture will follow naturally.

Pillar 2 – Flow

The key to successful execution in SAFe is establishing a continuous flow of work that supports incremental value delivery, based on continuous feedback and adjustment. Establishing continuous flow is critical to fast value delivery; effective quality practices; continuous improvement; and effective, evidence-based governance. The principles of flow, reflected in this pillar of the House of Lean, constitute an important subset of the SAFe Lean-Agile Principles and are instantiated in various practices throughout. These include understanding the full Value Stream, visualizing and limiting WIP, reducing batch sizes and managing queue lengths, and prioritizing work based on the cost of delay. Lean also has a primary focus on Built-in Quality, fast feedback, and the identification and constant reduction of delays and non-value-added activities.

These constructs provide a pivotal change to a better understanding of the system development process and provide new thinking, tools, and techniques that leaders and teams can use to move from phase-gated processes to more continuous value delivery.

Pillar 3 – Innovation

Flow builds a solid foundation for the delivery of value, but without innovation, both product and process will stagnate. Innovation is a critical part of the SAFe House of Lean. In support of innovation, Lean-Agile Leaders:

  • “Get out of the office” and into the actual workplace where value is produced and products are created and used (gemba). As Taiichi Ohno put it, “No useful improvement was ever invented at a desk.”
  • Provide time and space for people to be creative. Time for innovation must be purposeful. Innovations can rarely occur in the presence of 100% utilization and continuous firefighting. SAFe’s Innovation and Planning Iteration is one such opportunity.
  • Apply innovation accounting [6]. Establish nonfinancial, non-vanity Metrics that provide fast feedback on the important elements of the new innovation.
  • Validate the innovation with customers, then pivot without mercy or guilt when the hypothesis needs to change.

Pillar 4 – Relentless Improvement

The fourth pillar is relentless improvement. With this pillar, the organization is guided to become a learning organization through continuous reflection and relentless improvement. A constant sense of competitive danger drives the learning organization to aggressively pursue improvement opportunities. Leaders and teams do the following systematically:

  • Optimize the whole, not the parts, of both the organization and the development process
  • Consider facts carefully, then act quickly
  • Apply Lean tools and techniques to determine the root cause of inefficiencies and apply effective countermeasures quickly
  • Reflect at key milestones to openly identify and address the shortcomings of the process at all levels

Foundation – Leadership

The foundation of Lean is leadership, which is the ultimate enabling force for team success. Here, SAFe’s philosophy is simple: The ultimate responsibility for adoption and success of the Lean-Agile paradigm lies with the enterprise’s existing managers, leaders, and executives. “Such a responsibility cannot be delegated” (Deming [7]) to Lean/Agile champions, Lean/Agile working groups, development teams, a PMO, process teams, outside consultants, or any other party. To achieve success, leaders must be trained in these new and innovative ways of thinking and exhibit the principles and behaviors of Lean-Agile leadership.

Lean thinking deviates from common experience with Agile, which was often introduced as a team-based process that tended to exclude management. That does not scale. Here is a key differentiator between traditional Agile and one of the key drivers for SAFe:

In traditional Agile, the expectation has been that management simply supports the teams and helps eliminate impediments as they arise. In Lean-Agile development, the expectation is that management leads the teams, embraces the values of Lean, is competent in the basic practices, proactively eliminates impediments, and takes an active role in driving organizational change and facilitating relentless improvement.

The Agile Manifesto

In the 1990s, in response to the many challenges of waterfall development methods, a number of lighter-weight and more iterative development methods arose. In 2001, many of the leaders of these methods came together in Snowbird, Utah. While there were differences of opinion on the specific merits of one method over another, the attendees agreed that their common values and beliefs dwarfed the differences in approach. The result was a Manifesto for Agile Software Development [8], which was a turning point that helped unify the approach and started to bring the benefits of these innovate methods to the industry at large. The Manifesto consists of a value statement, as exhibited in Figure 2, and a set of principles, as exhibited in Figure 3.

Figure 2. The Values of the Agile Manifesto
Figure 2. Values of the Agile Manifesto


Figure 3. Principles of the Agile Manifesto
Figure 3. Principles of the Agile Manifesto

Along with the various Agile methods, the Manifesto provides the Agile foundation for effective, empowered, self-organizing teams. SAFe extends this foundation to the level of teams of teams and applies Lean thinking to understand and relentlessly improve the systems that support the teams in their critical work.

Learn More

[1] Womack, James P., and Daniel T. Jones and Daniel Roos. The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production—Toyota’s Secret Weapon in the Global Car Wars That Is Revolutionizing World Industry. Free Press, 2007.

[2] Ward, Allen and Durward Sobeck. Lean Product and Process Development. Lean Enterprise Institute, 2014.

[3] Reinertsen, Donald G. The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development. Celeritas, 2009.

[4] Poppendieck, Mary and Tom Poppendieck. Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash. Addison-Wesley, 2006.

[5] Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Addison-Wesley, 2011.

[6] Ries, Eric. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Business, 2011.

[7] Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. MIT Center for Advanced Educational Services, 1982.

[8] Manifesto for Agile Software Development. http://agilemanifesto.org/.

Last update: 25 October 2015