It all starts with a Lean-Agile Mindset.

—SAFe authors



Lean-Agile Mindset

The Lean-Agile Mindset is the combination of beliefs, assumptions, and actions of SAFe leaders and practitioners who embrace the concepts of the Agile Manifesto and Lean thinking. It’s the personal, intellectual, and leadership foundation for adopting and applying SAFe principles and practices.

SAFe is based on three primary bodies of knowledge: Agile development, Lean product development [1], and systems thinking.

Agile development provides the tools needed to empower and engage teams to achieve unprecedented levels of productivity, quality, and engagement. Nevertheless, a broader and deeper Lean-Agile mindset is required to support Lean and Agile development at scale across the entire enterprise. Therefore, there are two primary aspects of a Lean-Agile Mindset:

  • Thinking Lean – Lean thinking is illustrated by the SAFe House of Lean (Figure 1). In this graphical depiction, the roof of the house represents the goal of delivering value. The pillars embody respect for people and culture, flow, innovation, and relentless improvement to support the goal. Lean leadership provides the foundation on which everything stands.
  • Embracing agility – SAFe is built entirely on the skills, aptitude, and capabilities of Agile teams and their leaders. The Agile Manifesto provides a value system and set of principles that are fundamental to the mindset for successful Agile development.

Understanding and applying this knowledge helps create the Lean-Agile mindset, part of a new management approach and an enhanced company culture. It provides the leadership needed to drive a successful SAFe transformation, helping individuals and businesses achieve their goals.


Thinking Lean with the SAFe House of Lean

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 [2]. For example, Ward [3], Reinertsen [4], Poppendieck,[5], Leffingwell [6], and others have described aspects of Lean thinking, placing many of the core principles and practices in a product development context. Along with these, we present the SAFe House of Lean, as illustrated in Figure 1, inspired by houses of Lean from Toyota and others.

Figure 1. The SAFe House of Lean

The Goal – Value

The goal of Lean is to deliver the maximum customer value in the shortest sustainable lead time while providing the highest possible quality to Customers and society as a whole. High morale, safety, and customer delight are additional goals and benefits.

Pillar 1 – Respect for People and Culture

A Lean-Agile approach doesn’t implement itself or perform any real work—people do. Respect for people and culture is a basic human need. When treated with respect, people are empowered to evolve their practices and improve. Management challenges people to change and may steer them toward better ways of working. However, it’s the teams and individuals who learn problem-solving and reflection skills, and are accountable for making the appropriate improvements [1].

The driving force behind this new behavior is culture, which requires the enterprise and its leaders to change first. The principle of respect for people and culture also extends to relationships with Suppliers, partners, customers, and the broader community that supports the Enterprise.

Where there is an urgency for positive change, improvement of culture is possible. First, understand and implement the SAFe values and principles. Second, deliver winning results. Eventually, the culture will change naturally.

Pillar 2 – Flow

The key to successfully executing SAFe is to establish a continuous flow of work that supports incremental value delivery, based on constant feedback and adjustment. Continuous flow enables faster value delivery, effective Built-In Quality practices, relentless improvement, and evidence-based governance.

The principles of flow are an essential part of the Lean-Agile mindset. These include understanding the full Value Stream, visualizing and limiting Work in Process (WIP), and reducing batch sizes and managing queue lengths. Additionally,  Lean focus on identifying and continuously removing delays and waste (non-value-added activities).

Lean-Agile principles provide a better understanding of the system development process, incorporating new thinking, tools, and techniques that leaders and teams can use to move from a phase-gated approach to DevOps and a Continuous Delivery Pipeline that extends flow to the entire value delivery process.

Pillar 3 – Innovation

Flow builds a solid foundation for value delivery. But without innovation, both product and process will steadily decline. To support this critical part of the SAFe House of Lean, Lean-Agile Leaders engage in the following practices:

  • Get out of the office and into the actual workplace where the value is produced, and products are created and used (known as gemba). As Taiichi Ohno put it, “No useful improvement was ever invented at a desk.”
  • Provide time and space for people to be creative, enabling purposeful innovation, which can rarely occur in the presence of 100 percent utilization and daily firefighting. SAFe’s Innovation and Planning Iteration is one such opportunity.
  • Apply Continuous Exploration, the process of constantly exploring the market and user needs, and defining a Vision, Roadmap, and set of Features that address those needs.
  • Apply Innovation Accounting [7]. Establish nonfinancial, non-vanity Metrics that provide fast feedback for innovation.
  • Validate the innovation with customers, then pivot without mercy or guilt when the hypothesis needs to change.

Pillar 4 – Relentless Improvement

The fourth pillar, relentless improvement, encourages learning and growth through continuous reflection and process enhancements. A constant sense of competitive danger drives the company to pursue improvement opportunities aggressively. Leaders and teams do the following:

  • Optimize the whole, not the parts, of both the organization and the development process
  • Consider facts carefully, then act quickly
  • Apply Lean tools and techniques to determine the root cause of inefficiencies and apply effective countermeasures rapidly
  • Reflect at key milestones to openly identify and address the shortcomings of the process at all levels

Foundation – Leadership

The foundation of Lean is leadership, a key enabler for team success. The ultimate responsibility for the successful adoption of the Lean-Agile approach lies with the enterprise’s managers, leaders, and executives. According to Deming, “Such a responsibility cannot be delegated” to Lean-Agile champions, working groups, a Program Management Office (PMO), process teams, outside consultants, or any other party [8]. Therefore, Leaders must be trained in these new and innovative ways of thinking and exhibit the principles and behaviors of Lean-Agile leadership.

Lean thinking is similar to, but somewhat different than, Agile. It was initially introduced as a team-based process that tended to exclude managers. Unfortunately, that doesn’t scale. In Lean-Agile development, by contrast, managers become leaders who embrace the values of Lean, are competent in the basic practices, proactively eliminates impediments, and take an active role in driving organizational change and facilitating unrelenting improvement.

Embracing Agility with the Agile Manifesto

In the 1990s, responding to the many challenges of waterfall processes, some lighter-weight and more iterative development methods emerged. In 2001, many of the leaders of these frameworks came together in Snowbird, Utah. While there were differences of opinion on the specific merits of one method over another, the attendees agreed that their shared values and beliefs dwarfed the differences. The result was a Manifesto for Agile Software Development—a turning point that clarified the new approach and started to bring the benefits of these innovative methods to the whole development industry [9]. The Manifesto consists of the value statement shown in Figure 2 and a set of principles shown in Figure 3.

Figure 2. Values of the Agile Manifesto


Figure 3. Principles of the Agile Manifesto

Along with the various practices, the Agile Manifesto provides the foundation for empowered, self-organizing teams. SAFe extends this to teams-of-Agile-teams, applying Lean thinking to understand and relentlessly improve the systems that support their critical work.


Learn More

[1] Knaster, Richard and Dean Leffingwell. SAFe Distilled, Applying the Scaled Agile Framework for Lean Software and Systems Engineering. Addison-Wesley, 2017.

[2] 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.

[3] Ward, Allen and Durward Sobeck. Lean Product and Process Development. Lean Enterprise Institute, 2014.

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

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

[6] Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Addison-Wesley, 2011.

[7] Ries, Eric. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Business, 2011.

[8] Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. MIT Center for Advanced Educational Services, 1982.

[9] Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

Last update: 3 October 2018