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, Out of the Crisis [1]

SAFe Lean-Agile Principles

SAFe is based on ten immutable, underlying Lean-Agile principles. These tenets and economic concepts inspire and inform the roles and practices of SAFe.

#1 - Take an economic view#2 - Apply systems thinking#3 - Assume variability; preserve options#4 - Build incrementally with fast integrated learning cycles#5 - Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems#6 - Make value flow without interruptions#7 - Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning#8 - Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers#9 - Decentralize decision makingOrganize around Value

Figure 1. SAFe Lean-Agile Principles

Why the Focus on Principles?

Building enterprise-class software and cyber-physical systems are among the most complex challenges our industry faces today. And, of course, the enterprises that build these systems are also increasingly sophisticated. They are bigger and more distributed than ever. Mergers and acquisitions, distributed multinational (and multilingual) development, offshoring, and rapid growth are all part of the solution. But they’re also part of the problem.

Fortunately, we have an amazing and growing body of knowledge that can help. It includes Agile principles and methods, Lean and systems thinking, product development flow practices, and Lean processes. Thought leaders have traveled this path before us and left a trail in hundreds of books and references to draw on.

The goal of SAFe is to synthesize this body of knowledge, along with the lessons learned from hundreds of deployments. This creates a system of integrated, proven practices that have improved employee engagement, time-to-market, solution quality, and team productivity. Given the complexities, however, there’s no off-the-shelf solution for the unique challenges each enterprise faces. Not every SAFe recommended practice will apply equally in every circumstance. This is why we work hard to ensure that SAFe practices are grounded in fundamentally stable principles. That way, we can be confident the practices apply in most situations.

And if those practices do fall short, the underlying principles will guide the teams to make sure that they are moving continuously on the path to the goal of the lean: “shortest sustainable lead time, with best quality and value to people and society.” There is value in that, too.

SAFe is based on ten fundamental concepts that have evolved from Agile principles and methods, Lean product development, systems thinking, and observation of successful enterprises. Each is described in detail in an article by that principle’s name. In addition, the embodiment of the principles appears throughout the Framework. They are summarized in the following sections, and each has a full article behind the link.

#1 – Take an economic view

Delivering the ‘best value and quality for people and society in the shortest sustainable lead time’ requires a fundamental understanding of the economics of building systems. Everyday decisions must be made in a proper economic context. This includes the strategy for incremental value delivery and the broader economic framework for each value stream. This framework highlights the trade-offs between risk, Cost of Delay (CoD), manufacturing, operational, and development costs. In addition, every development value stream must operate within the context of an approved budget and be compliant with the guardrails which support decentralized decision-making.

#2 – Apply systems thinking

Deming observed that addressing the challenges in the workplace and the marketplace requires an understanding of the systems within which workers and users operate [2]. Such systems are complex, and they consist of many interrelated components. But optimizing a component does not optimize the system. To improve, everyone must understand the larger aim of the system. In SAFe, systems thinking is applied to the system under development, as well as to the organization that builds the system.

#3 – Assume variability; preserve options

Traditional design and life cycle practices encourage choosing a single design-and-requirements option early in the development process. Unfortunately, if that starting point proves to be the wrong choice, then future adjustments take too long and can lead to a suboptimal design. A better approach is to maintain multiple requirements and design options for a longer period in the development cycle. Empirical data is then used to narrow the focus, resulting in a design that creates optimum economic outcomes.

#4 – Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles

Developing solutions incrementally in a series of short iterations allows for faster customer feedback and mitigates risk. Subsequent increments build on the previous ones. Since the ‘system always runs,’ some increments may serve as prototypes for market testing and validation; others become minimum viable products (MVPs). Still others extend the system with new and valuable functionality. In addition, these early, fast feedback points help determine when to ‘pivot’ where necessary to an alternate course of action.

#5 – Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems

Business owners, developers, and customers have a shared responsibility to ensure that investment in new solutions will deliver economic benefits. The sequential, phase-gate development model was designed to meet this challenge, but experience shows that it does not mitigate risk as intended. In Lean-Agile development, integration points provide objective milestones at which to evaluate the solution throughout the development life cycle. This regular evaluation provides the financial, technical, and fitness-for-purpose governance needed to ensure that a continuing investment will produce a commensurate return.

#6 – Make value flow without interruptions

The third principle in Lean Thinking is to ‘make value flow without interruptions.’ Doing so requires an understanding of what flow is, what the various properties of a flow system are, and how these properties can accelerate or impede the flow of value through any particular system. Principle #6 highlights the eight common properties of a flow-based system and provides specific recommendations for eliminating impediments to flow.

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

Cadence creates predictability 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 the mechanisms needed to operate effectively in the presence of inherent development uncertainty.

#8 – Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

Lean-Agile leaders understand that ideation, innovation, and employee engagement are not generally motivated by individual incentive compensation. Such individual incentives can create internal competition and destroy the cooperation necessary to achieve the larger aim of the system. Providing autonomy and purpose, minimizing constraints, creating an environment of mutual influence, and better understanding the role of compensation are keys to higher levels of employee engagement. This approach yields better outcomes for individuals, customers, and the enterprise.

#9 – Decentralize decision-making

Achieving fast value delivery requires decentralized decision-making. This reduces delays, improves product development flow, enables faster feedback, and creates more innovative solutions designed by those closest to the local knowledge. However, some decisions are strategic and global and have economies of scale that justify centralized decision-making. Since both types of decisions occur, creating a reliable decision-making framework is a critical step in empowering employees and ensuring a fast flow of value.

#10 – Organize around value

Many enterprises today are organized around principles developed during the last century. In the name of intended efficiency, most are organized around functional expertise. But in the digital age, the only sustainable competitive advantage is the speed with which an organization can respond to the needs of its customers with new and innovative solutions. These solutions require cooperation amongst all the functional areas, with their incumbent dependencies, handoffs, waste, and delays. Instead, Business Agility demands that enterprises organize around value to deliver more quickly. And when market and customer demands change, the enterprise must quickly and seamlessly reorganize around that new value flow.

Learn More

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

[2] Deming, W. Edwards. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education. The MIT Press, 2018.

Last update: 4 May 2023