Strive to be more Agile, rather than simply following Agile methods and steps. This approach encourages adoption of the philosophy, or mindset, rather than specific steps. This is also referred to as being Agile, or having agility versus using it.

— Effective Practices and Federal Challenges in Applying Agile Methods, GAO, 2012 [1]

Building a Solid Lean-Agile Foundation

This is article one in the SAFe for Government (S4G) series. Click here to view the S4G home page.

One of the more common anti-patterns of Agile adoption is the misconception that simply following methods such as Scrum will lead to development becoming ‘Agile.’ As a result, many previous attempts to incorporate Agile methods in government agencies have struggled and haven’t resulted in increased frequency and quality value delivery. Root cause analysis often reveals that leaders assumed they would generate Agile benefits by merely adopting practices such as working in two-week iterations, organizing work as stories in a backlog, and conducting daily stand-ups.

Achieving mission agility through technology development, however, requires more than checking off a list of practices from any of the common team-level Agile methods. Instead, it begins with understanding why Lean-Agile produces better software and systems development results versus waterfall. (For example, Lean-Agile is 350% more likely to be successful compared to waterfall projects, and 600% more likely for very large projects according to the Standish Group [2]). It requires addressing issues of mindset and culture, which are admittedly more difficult to change than the mechanics of organizing and executing work. In fact, for more than a decade, the annual State of Agile Report has listed “organizational culture at odds with Agile values” among the top challenges in adopting and scaling Agile. [3]

Fortunately, the bodies of knowledge of Lean, Agile, and SAFe all have foundational values and principles that guide us to the right perspectives needed to execute a successful transition from traditional lifecycle models. The sections that follow provide brief summaries of the values and principles of Lean-Agile and SAFe, with links to the detailed articles in the Framework that provide further elaboration.


Lean Thinking

The core benefit of Lean is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. The original principles of Lean include:

  • Precisely specify value by product
  • Identify the value stream for each product
  • Make value flow without interruptions
  • Let the customer pull value from the producer
  • Pursuing perfection [4]

It is easy to see how Lean thinking applies in the government context. Maximizing value delivered for taxpayer money invested in technology while minimizing wasteful spending should be a universal goal of every public agency. Unfortunately, traditional development practices do not sufficiently emphasize or enable these objectives. Further, the ideas of respect for people and culture, flow-based development, investing in innovation, and relentless improvement have only recently gained acceptance in federal software and systems programs thanks to resources such as the Digital Services Playbook. [7] Understanding the principles and practices of Lean is a critical prerequisite to applying these concepts for better technical performance and mission results.

Agile Values and Principles

Many in government don’t associate the term ‘Agile’ with a set of values and principles. Instead, they picture small teams conducting daily stand-ups in front of marker boards full of Post-It® notes. Few envision a fundamental and philosophical shift emphasizing:

  • Face-to-face conversations
  • Evaluating progress by observing working components versus reports
  • Collaborating with customers to define and validate system functionality
  • Having a development plan that can deal with a dynamic environment

Yet, that is precisely what is needed in public sector technology programs. No one has articulated this more eloquently than Gen. Ellen Pawlinkowski (Ret.), former Commander of US Air Force Materiel Command. (See Gen. Pawlinkowski’s explanation of how the 12 principles of Agile directly and immediately apply to mission accomplishment in the US Department of Defense here:

Following a wave of infamous software project failures in the 1990s, a group of technology thought leaders articulated Agile values and principles in 2001. [8] As compared with the traditional plan-driven model that had been the default standard since the early 1970s, these experts envisioned a more iterative and incremental customer-focused approach. The values of the ‘Agile Manifesto’ describe a transformation in the approach to developing software. They include:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

The four values are supported by 12 principles that create a tangible picture of how an Agile approach changes the way development teams work. These principles can be found on the Agile Manifesto website [9] as well as in the second half of the Lean-Agile Mindset article.

SAFe Values and Principles

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is firmly grounded in, and consistent with, the values, principles, and practices of Lean and Agile. SAFe emerged a few years after the Agile Manifesto as the world’s most prominent organizations attempted to apply Lean and Agile to the development of large and complex products. These included core banking software, electronic medical equipment, logistics and supply chain systems, and fighter jets. The experiences of these enterprises revealed that at scale, an additional set of values and principles for technology development are essential to produce high-value quality products in the shortest sustainable lead time. The four SAFe core values and ten principles are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 2. The SAFe Core Values and SAFe Principles
Figure 1. The SAFe Core Values and SAFe Principles

Over the last 10+ years of SAFe implementations in Global 1000 companies and governments around the world, the most successful organizations embrace and embody these values and principles. Conversely, in instances where there have been problems in a SAFe transformation, the most common root causes can be traced to the failure to observe and enforce one or more of these key tenants. Dozens of successful SAFe implementations in government agencies in the U.S. and abroad have also proven that these values and principles are equally applicable and achievable in the public sector.

For a more detailed discussion, refer to the articles on Core Values and SAFe Principles.

Critical Success Factors

Finally, in addition to a solid foundation of values and principles, we’ve found that a core set of 10 critical success factors are vital to any SAFe implementation. Although the majority of the framework is configurable and designed to be tailored to each specific context, the most successful implementations have consistently embraced the SAFe’s ten critical success factors shown in Figure 2.

Figure 3. The 10 critical success factors of SAFe
Figure 2. The 10 critical success factors of SAFe

That article provides a detailed explanation of each of these fundamental SAFe practices, along with links to toolkits that can be used to present them and assess how well an organization is doing in following these core practices.

Government leaders who commit to the values and principles of Lean, Agile, and SAFe—along with the 10 critical success factors —when managing technology initiatives, can expect immediate and measurable improvements. These include increases in program predictability, quality, the frequency of value delivery, customer satisfaction, and positive employee and supplier engagement.

Moving Forward

The next crucial concept for adopting SAFe in Government is Creating high-performing teams of teams.


Learn More

[1] Effective Practices and Federal Challenges in Applying Agile Methods. GAO, 2012.

[2] Chaos Report. Standish Group, 2015.

[3] 16th Annual State of Agile Report.

[4] Womack, James P.,  Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos. The Machine That Changed the World. Free Press, 1990.

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

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

[7] The Digital Services Playbook.

[8] To Agility and Beyond: The History – and Legacy – of Agile Development.

[9] The Agile Manifesto.

[10] Gen. Ellen Pawlinkowski, US Air Force Materiel Command. DoD Use of Agile Software Development ‘Critical.’

Last update: 13 March 2023