Agility is principally about mindset, not practices.

―Jim Highsmith, Agile Project Management [1]

Lean-Agile Mindset

The Lean-Agile Mindset is the combination of beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and actions of SAFe leaders and practitioners who embrace the concepts of Lean Thinking and the Agile Manifesto.

(Courtesy of Womack & Jones from Lean Thinking, and the Agile Manifesto [2,3])

It’s the personal, intellectual, and leadership foundation for adopting and applying SAFe principles and practices.

The Lean-Agile mindset forms the cornerstone of a new way of working and an enhanced company culture that enables Business Agility. It provides leaders and change agents with the tools needed to drive a successful SAFe transformation, helping individuals and enterprises achieve their goals.


Mindset Awareness and Openness to Change

What exactly is a ‘mindset?’ A mindset is a mental lens through which we view the world around us. It is how the human brain simplifies, categorizes, and interprets the vast amount of information it receives daily. We form our mindsets through a lifetime of structured learning (classes, reading) and unstructured lessons (life events, work experience). They reside in the subconscious mind and manifest themselves as deeply held beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and influences. Consequently, individuals are often unaware of how their mindsets influence how they carry out their responsibilities and interact with others. While many mindsets are positive and serve us well, others may need to change over time [4].

So how can mindsets be changed? It begins with an awareness of one’s current mindsets and how they were formed. It’s also vital to cultivate the belief that mindsets can be developed and improved (a ‘growth’ mindset, as illustrated in Figure 1).

Figure 1. Adopting a new mindset requires a belief that new abilities can be developed with effort
Figure 1. Adopting a new mindset requires a belief that new abilities can be developed with effort

Changing mindsets is a vital topic in transitioning to SAFe because, too often, leaders and practitioners in organizations go through the motions of mimicking SAFe practices and using SAFe terms without internalizing and embracing the underlying values and principles that truly represent a new way of working. This ‘SAFe in name only’ approach may produce some small successes in the short term. However, in the long term, such a shallow adoption of the Lean-Agile mindset will inevitably fail to produce the real, long-lasting business results leaders hoped for when they decided to ‘go SAFe.’

To fully embrace SAFe requires a growth mindset open to learning the core values and principles of two primary underlying bodies of knowledge: Lean Thinking and Agile. Each has a rich and deep history of published guidance and case studies. Their respective values and principles need to be understood and practiced so that the ideals of both Lean and Agile permeate the organization’s language, practices, and decision-making. Ultimately, it simply becomes ‘our way of working’ and is deeply ingrained in the culture of the enterprise.

The following two sections describe the key elements of Lean Thinking and Agile (summarized in Figure 2) that form the basis of the Lean-Agile mindset.

Figure 2. Lean Thinking and Agile are the core building blocks of SAFe
Figure 2. Lean Thinking and Agile are the core building blocks of SAFe

Lean Thinking

Adopting Lean product development can double labor productivity through the entire system, cut time-to-market for new products in half, and enable a wider variety of products within product families to be offered at very modest additional cost.

James Womack & Daniel Jones, Lean Thinking [2]

Initially derived from Lean manufacturing, the principles and practices of Lean thinking as applied to software, product, and systems development are now deep and extensive [5]. For example, Ward [6], Reinertsen [7], Poppendieck [8], Kersten [9], Leffingwell [10], and others have described aspects of Lean thinking, placing many of the core principles and practices within a product development context. Applying Lean Thinking to product development, thereby shifting from the traditional batch-and-queue production system to continuous flow with an effective pull by the customer, can lead to dramatic improvements.

Lean thinking can be summarized as shown in Figure 3:

Figure 3. The core tenets of Lean Thinking
Figure 3. The core principles of Lean Thinking

As Figure 3 illustrates, the goal of Lean Thinking is to deliver the maximum value (a solution) to the customer in the shortest sustainable lead time from the trigger (the identification of the need or opportunity) to the point at which the customer receives the value. How value is created also matters. High quality, respect for people and society, high morale, safety, and customer delight are also essential goals and benefits of Lean Thinking. Achieving these goals requires applying the five basic principles of Lean, illustrated in Figure 3 and described in the following sections.

Precisely specify value by specific product

Every enterprise is built to deliver value. Value can only be defined by the ultimate customer. And it’s only meaningful when expressed in terms of a specific product (a good or a service, and often both at once) that meets the customer’s needs at a specific price at a specific time. Therefore, the first principle of Lean Thinking underscores the importance of understanding customers’ needs and quantifying the value inherent in the solutions delivered to them. The solution itself holds the value—not the project, initiative, or process that produces it—and the customer ultimately determines that value.

Identify the Value Stream for each product

Once ‘value’ is defined for each product and type of customer, the following principle in Lean Thinking is to articulate how the enterprise creates that value, from identifying a need or opportunity to delivering the solution. This flow of work is the value stream and contains all the people, processes, tools, and information necessary to deliver value. Delays anywhere in this system result in delayed delivery of value to customers.

Make value flow without interruptions

The third principle in Lean Thinking is establishing a continuous, uninterrupted flow of work that supports incremental value delivery based on constant feedback and adjustment. Enabled by Built-In Quality practices, relentless improvement, and evidence-based governance, continuous flow enables faster, sustainable value delivery.

Achieving a continuous flow of value requires applying and understanding the eight fundamental properties of flow: visualizing and limiting work-in-process (WIP), addressing bottlenecks, minimizing handoffs and dependencies, getting fast feedback, working in small batches, managing queue lengths, optimizing time ‘in the zone,’ and remediating legacy policies and practices. These flow properties are described in greater detail in the SAFe Principle 6 article and in the Team Flow, ART Flow, Solution Train Flow, and Portfolio Flow articles. The SAFe Core Values and SAFe Principles help teams achieve a continuous flow of value at scale in large, complex enterprises.

Let the customer pull value from the producer

The next Lean principle guides organizations to configure value streams to deliver solutions that customers pull into the market based on their actual needs rather than solutions that teams push into the market based on what they ‘think’ customers need. This is key to calibrating the capacity of the value stream. Too much capacity compared to market pull results in waste, which is antithetical to Lean thinking. Conversely, too little capacity creates bottlenecks and delays, defeating the intent to provide the customer with a continuous flow of value.

Pursue perfection

The final principle of Lean Thinking is expressed as ‘pursue perfection.’ It reflects that no matter how closely the first five principles are followed, creating a fast and effective flow of value is not a one-time activity. Market dynamics, customer needs, and available technologies are just some of the many factors that can require value streams to be refined and, in some cases, rebuilt entirely.


Agile is an attitude, not a technique with boundaries. An attitude has no boundaries, so we wouldn’t ask ‘can I use Agile here,’ but rather ‘how would I act in the Agile way here,’ or ‘how Agile can we be, here?’

Alistair Cockburn, Agile Software Development [11]

In the 1990s, some lighter-weight and more iterative development methods emerged in response to the many challenges of waterfall processes. In 2001, many leaders of these frameworks came together to express their shared values and beliefs in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This turning point clarified the new approach and started to bring the benefits of these innovative methods to the whole development industry [3]. Since the Manifesto was first published, Agile has been adopted by domains outside of software development, including hardware systems, infrastructure, operations, and support. More recently, business teams outside of technology have also embraced Agile principles for planning and executing their work.

The Values of Agile

Agile is built on the value statement shown in Figure 4. For the remainder of the description of Agile Values and Principles, as initially outlined in the Agile Manifesto, readers can expand each use of the term ‘software’ to include the working output of any Agile team, regardless of the domain.

Figure 4. Agile Values
Figure 4. Agile Values

Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools

Deming notes, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, then you don’t know what you are doing.” [12] So, Agile processes in frameworks like Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe matter. However, a process is only a means to an end. When we’re captive to a process that isn’t working, it creates waste and delays. So, favor individuals and interactions, then modify processes accordingly. Tools are valuable but should supplement, rather than replace, face-to-face communication.

Working ‘Software’ over Comprehensive Documentation

Documentation is important and has value. But creating documents to comply with potentially outdated corporate governance models has limited value. As part of a change program, governance, often captured by documentation standards, needs to be updated to reflect the Lean-Agile way of working. Rather than create detailed documentation too early—especially the wrong kind—it’s more valuable to show customers working software, systems, and so on to get their feedback. Therefore, favor measuring progress by evaluating tangible work products. And document only what’s truly needed.

Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation

Customers are the ultimate deciders of value, so their close collaboration is essential in pursuing business agility. Contracts are often necessary to convey each party’s rights, responsibilities, and economic concerns—but recognize that contracts can over-regulate what to do and how to do it. They don’t replace regular communication, collaboration, and trust, no matter how well they’re written. Instead, contracts should be win-win propositions. Win-lose contracts usually result in poor economic outcomes and distrust, creating contentious short-term relationships instead of long-term business partnerships. Instead, favor customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

Responding to Change over Following a Plan

Change is a reality in the digital age and essential to achieving agility. The strength of Lean-Agile is in how it embraces change. As the system evolves, so does the understanding of the problem and the solution domain. Business stakeholder knowledge also improves over time, and customer needs evolve as well. Indeed, those changes add value to our system.

Of course, planning is an essential part of Agile. In fact, Agile teams and teams-of-teams plan more often and more continuously than their waterfall counterparts. However, plans must adapt as new learning occurs, new information becomes visible, and the situation changes. Worse, evaluating success by measuring conformance to a plan drives the wrong behaviors (for example, following a plan in the face of evidence that the plan is not working).

Agile Principles

Agile has 12 self-explanatory principles that support its values, as shown in Figure 5. These principles take Agile Values a step further and specifically describe what it means to be Agile.

Figure 5. Principles of the Agile Manifesto
Figure 5. Principles of the Agile Manifesto

The combination of these values and principles creates the essence of Agile. There is overwhelming evidence from success stories in all industries across every geography demonstrating the extraordinary business and personal benefits of this new way of thinking and working. We are grateful for it.

Applying Lean Thinking and Agile in SAFe

Collectively, the values and principles of Lean Thinking and Agile form the DNA of everything contained within SAFe. All the roles, practices, events, and artifacts in SAFe are designed to provide practical guidance for adopting the combination of these two bodies of knowledge as the new way of working throughout the enterprise.

Thousands of implementations of SAFe over the last decade have shown that Lean Thinking and Agile principles and practices have unique implications when applied at scale. For example, providing an uninterrupted flow of value within the context of a single Agile team will look different than when this same principle is applied to an entire portfolio. Yet the principle is equally important in both cases. The implications of Lean and Agile at scale have been captured in the SAFe Core Values and SAFe Principles articles.

Learn More

[1] Highsmith, Jim. Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products. Addison-Welsley Professional, 2009.

[2] Womack, James P., and Daniel T. Jones. Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation. Free Press, 2003.

[3] Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

[4] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Publishing, 2007.

[5] Womack, James P., 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.

[6] Ward, Allen C., and Durward K. Sobeck II. Lean Product and Process Development. Lean Enterprise Institute, 2014.

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

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

[9] Kersten, Mik. Project to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework. IT Revolution Press, 2018.

[10] Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Addison-Wesley Professional, 2010.

[11] Cockburn, Alistair. Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game. Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006.

[12] Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. The MIT Press, 2018.

Last update: 25 May 2023