SAFe Lean-Agile Principles

The impression that “our problems are different” is a common disease that afflicts management the world over. They are different, to be sure, but the principles that will help to improve the quality of product and service are universal in nature.
—W. Edwards Deming

SAFe Principles

SAFe is based on a number of immutable, underlying Lean and Agile principles. These are the fundamental tenets, the basic truths and economic underpinnings that drive the roles and practices that make SAFe effective. The nine principles are:


Why the Focus on Principles?

Building enterprise-class software and cyber-physical systems is one of the most complex challenges the industry faces today. Millions of lines of software, complex hardware and software interactions, multiple concurrent platforms, demanding and unforgiving nonfunctional requirements—these are just a few of the challenges systems builders face.

Of course, the enterprises that build these systems are increasingly complex, too. They are bigger and more distributed than ever. Mergers and acquisitions, distributed multinational (and multilingual) development, offshoring, and the rapid growth that success requires are all part of the solution—but also part of the problem as well.

Fortunately, we have an amazing and growing body of knowledge to help us address this challenge. These include Agile principles and methods, Lean and Systems thinking, product development flow, Lean process and product development, and more. Many thought leaders have gone down this path before us and left a trail to follow in the hundreds of books and references we can draw on.

SAFe’s goal is to synthesize some of this body of knowledge and the lessons learned from hundreds of deployments into a single framework—a system of integrated, proven practices that has been demonstrated to bring substantial improvements in employee engagement, time to market, solution quality, and team productivity. However, given the complexity of the industry challenges already discussed, there is truly no off-the-shelf solution to the unique challenges every enterprise faces. This means that some tailoring and customization may be required, as not every SAFe-recommended practice will apply equally well in every circumstance. Therefore, we always endeavor to make certain that SAFe practices are grounded in fundamental, and reasonably immutable, principles. In that way, we can be confident that they apply well in the general case. And when and if they don’t, the underlying principles can guide those doing the implementation to make sure that they are moving on a continuous path to the “shortest sustainable lead time, with best quality and value to people and society.” There is value in that too.

Summary of Principles

As we have noted, SAFe’s practices are grounded on nine fundamental principles that have evolved from Agile principles and methods, Lean product development, systems thinking, and observation of successful enterprises. Each principle is described in detail in an article of that name. In addition, the embodiment of the principles appears throughout the framework. As a further aid to understanding, they are summarized below.

#1 – Take an economic view

Achieving the best value and quality to people and society in the sustainably shortest lead time requires a fundamental understanding of the economics of the system builder’s mission. Lean systems builders endeavor to make sure that every day decisions are made in a proper economic context. The primary aspects include developing and communicating the strategy for incremental value delivery, and the creation of the value stream economic framework, which defines the tradeoffs between risk, cost of delay, operational and development costs, and supports decentralized decision-making.

#2- Apply systems thinking

Deming, one of the world’s foremost systems thinkers, constantly focused on the larger view of problems and challenges faced by people building and deploying systems of all types—manufacturing systems, social systems, management systems, even government systems. One central conclusion was the understating that the problems faced in the workplace were a result of a series of complex interactions that occurred within the systems the workers used to do their work. In other words, it’s a system problem not a people problem, and that requires systems thinking. This principle describes how systems thinking can be applied to the system you are building, the organization that builds the system, and to the entire value stream that produces the system.

#3 – Assume variability; preserve options

Traditional design and lifecycle practices drive picking a single requirements and design option early in the development process (early in the “cone of uncertainty). However, if the starting point is wrong, then future adjustments take too long and can lead to a suboptimal long-term design. Alternatively, lean systems developers maintain multiple requirements and design options for a longer period in the development cycle. Empirical data is then used to narrow focus, resulting in a design that creates better economic outcomes.

#4 – Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles

Lean systems builders build solutions incrementally in a series of short iterations. Each iteration results in an integrated increment of a working system. Subsequent iterations build upon the previous ones. Increments provide the opportunity for fast customer feedback and risk mitigation, and also serve as minimum viable solutions or prototypes for market testing and validation. , In addition these early, fast feedback points allow the systems builder to “pivot” where necessary to an alternate course of action

#5 – Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems

Systems builders and customers have a shared responsibility to assure that investment in new solutions will deliver economic benefit. The sequential, phase-gate development model was designed to meet this challenge, but experience has shown that it does not mitigate risk as intended. In Lean-Agile development, each integration point provides an opportunity to evaluate the solution, frequently and throughout the development life cycle. This objective evaluation provides the financial, technical and fitness-for-purpose governance needed to assure that a continuing investment will produce a commensurate return.

#6 – Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths

Lean systems builders strive to achieve a state of continuous flow, whereby new system capabilities move quickly and visibly from concept to cash. Three primary keys to implementing flow are to: 1. Visualize and limit the amount of work-in-process so as to limit demand to actual capacity, 2. Reduce the batch sizes of work items to facilitate reliable flow through the system, and 3. Manage queue lengths so as to reduce the wait times for new capabilities.

#7 – Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning

Cadence transforms unpredictable events into predictable ones, and provides a rhythm for development. Synchronization causes multiple perspectives to be understood, resolved and integrated at the same time. Applying development cadence and synchronization, coupled with periodic cross-domain planning, provides Lean systems builders with the tools they need to operate effectively in the presence of product development uncertainty.

#8 – Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

Lean-Agile leaders understand that ideation, innovation, and engagement of knowledge workers can’t generally be motivated by, incentive compensation, as individual MBOs (Management by Objectives), cause internal competition and destruction of the cooperation necessary to achieve the larger system aim. Providing autonomy, mission and purpose, and minimizing constraints, leads to higher levels of employee engagement, and results in better outcomes for customers and the enterprise.

#9 – Decentralize decision-making

Achieving fast value delivery requires fast, decentralized decision-making, as any decision escalated introduces delay. In addition, escalation can lead to lower fidelity decisions, due to the lack of local context, plus changes in fact patterns that occur during the wait time. Decentralized decision-making reduces delays, improves product development flow and enables faster feedback and more innovative solutions. However, some decisions are strategic, global in nature, and have economies of scale sufficient enough to warrant centralize decision-making. Since both types of decisions occur, the creation of an effective decision-making framework is a critical step in ensuring fast flow of value.


Last update: 24 August, 2016