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 secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organization.

—W. Edwards Deming

Principle #2 – Apply systems thinking

The four foundational bodies of knowledge that inform SAFe are systems thinking, Agile development, Lean product development, and DevOps. Systems thinking takes a holistic approach to solution development, incorporating all aspects of a system and its environment into the system’s design, development, deployment, and maintenance.

Figure 1 illustrates three primary aspects of systems thinking.

Figure 1. Three aspects of systems thinking
Figure 1. Three aspects of systems thinking

Understanding these concepts helps leaders and teams navigate the complexity of solution development, the organization, and the larger picture of total time-to-market. Each is described in the following sections.

The Solution Is a System

SAFe guides the development and deployment of complex technology-based solutions. Solutions are represented by the SAFe Solution object, the tangible object that delivers the end user value and is the subject of each development value stream—the application, satellite, medical device, or website. When it comes to such tangible systems, Deming’s comment that ‘a system must be managed’ leads to some critical insights:

  • Team members must clearly understand the system boundaries and how it interacts with the environment and the systems around it.
  • Optimizing a component of the system does not optimize the whole system. Components can become selfish and hog the resources—computing power, memory, electrical power, whatever—that other elements need.
  • For the system to behave well, teams must understand the intended behavior and architecture (how the components work together to accomplish the system’s aim). Intentional design is fundamental to systems thinking.
  • The value of a system passes through its interconnections. Those interfaces—and the dependencies they create—are critical to providing ultimate value. Continuous attention to those interfaces and interactions is vital.
  • A system can evolve no faster than its slowest integration point. The faster the full system can be integrated and evaluated, the quicker the system knowledge grows.

The Enterprise Building the System Is a System, Too

There’s a second aspect to systems thinking: the people, management, and processes of the organization that builds the system are also a system. The understanding that ‘systems must be managed’ applies here as well. Otherwise, the components of the organization building the system will optimize locally and become selfish, limiting the speed and quality of value delivery. This leads to another set of systems thinking insights about the enterprise:

  • Building complex systems is a social endeavor. Therefore, leaders must cultivate an environment where people collaborate on the best way to build better systems.
  • Suppliers and customers are integral to the development value stream. Both must be treated as partners based on a long-term foundation of trust.
  • Optimizing a component does not optimize the system in this case, either. Therefore optimizing local teams or functional departments does not enhance the flow of value through the enterprise.
  • And as with physical systems, the value of the system passes through its interfaces here too. Accelerating flow requires eliminating functional silos and creating cross-functional organizations, such as Agile Teams, Agile Release Trains (ARTs), and Solution Trains.

Understand and Optimize the Full Development Value Stream

Development value streams are fundamental to SAFe. A SAFe portfolio is a collection of development value streams, each delivering one or more solutions to the market. As illustrated in Figure 2, each development value stream consists of the steps necessary to integrate and deploy a new concept through a new or existing system.

Figure 2. The solution development Value Stream
Figure 2. The solution development Value Stream

Understanding and optimizing the entire development value stream—the third aspect of systems thinking—is the only way to reduce the total time it takes to go from concept to cash [2]. Systems thinking mandates that leaders and practitioners grasp and continuously optimize the entire development value stream, especially as it crosses technical and organizational boundaries.

One essential process is Value Stream Mapping, a systematic way to view all the steps required to produce value. Value stream mapping (Figure 3) helps leaders quickly recognize that the actual value-added steps—creating code and components, deployment, validation, etc.—consume only a small portion of the total time-to-market. This recognition drives these leaders to constantly focus on the delays between steps.

Figure 3. Value Stream mapping example: most of the time is wait time
Figure 3. Value stream mapping example showing significant wait time

Note that in this example, almost all the time between a feature request and deployment is wait time, resulting in a highly inefficient process.

Only Management Can Change the System

Everyone is already doing their best; the problems are with the system … only management can change the system.”

—W. Edwards Deming

This Deming quote prepares us for a final set of insights. Systems thinking requires a new approach to management as well, a perspective where managers are problem solvers, take the long view, proactively eliminate impediments, and lead the changes necessary to improve systems and performance. These Lean-Agile Leaders:

  • Exhibit and teach systems thinking and Lean-Agile values, principles, and practices
  • Engage in solving problems and eliminating roadblocks and ineffective internal systems
  • Apply and teach root-cause analysis and corrective action techniques
  • Collaborate with the teams to reflect at key Milestones and identify and address shortcomings
  • Take a long-term view, investing in enabling capabilities such as infrastructure, practices, tools, and training that lead to faster value delivery, better quality, and higher productivity
  • Foster a Continuous Learning Culture that includes relentless improvement in the application of systems thinking


Understanding the elements of systems thinking helps leaders and teams recognize the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of their actions, as well as the impact on those around them. This understanding leads to a leaner, smarter enterprise that can better navigate organization and solution development complexities. And that results in better business outcomes.

Learn More

[1] Deming, W. Edwards. The New Economics. MIT Press, 1994.

[2] Poppendieck, Mary, and Tom Poppendieck. Implementing Lean Software Development. Addison-Wesley, 2006.

Last update: 26 September 2023