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

SAFe Principles

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

1-Take an economic view2-Apply systems thinking3-Assume variability; preserve options4-Build incrementally with fast integrated learning cycles5-Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems6-Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths7-Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning8-Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers9-Decentralize decision making

Figure 1. SAFe Lean-Agile Principles

Why the Focus on Principles?

Building enterprise-class software and cyber-physical systems are one of the most complex challenges our industry faces today. For example:

  • It requires millions of lines of software
  • It combines complex hardware and software interactions
  • It crosses multiple concurrent platforms
  • It must satisfy demanding and unforgiving Nonfunctional Requirements (NFRs)

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 discussed earlier, however, there’s no off-the-shelf solution for the unique challenges each enterprise faces. Some tailoring and customization may be required, as 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 they’ll apply in most situations.

And when they don’t, the underlying principles will guide the teams to make sure that they are moving continuously on the path to the goal of the House of Lean: “shortest sustainable lead time, with best quality and value to people and society.” There is value in that, too.

SAFe practices are based on nine 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 below.

#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. It’s critical that everyday decisions are made in a proper economic context. The primary aspects include developing and communicating the strategy for incremental value delivery and creating the Value Stream Economic Framework. This defines the trade-offs between risk, Cost of Delay (CoD), and operational and development costs, while supporting decentralized decision-making.

#2 – Apply systems thinking

Deming observed that the problems faced in the workplace require an understanding of the systems that workers use. Moreover, a system is complex. It has many interrelated components (people and processes) that have defined, shared goals. To improve, everyone must understand and commit to the purpose of the system. Optimizing one component does not optimize the whole. In SAFe, systems thinking is applied to the organization that builds the system, as well as to the system under development. It also acknowledges how that system operates in its end-user environment.

#3 – Assume variability; preserve options

Traditional design and life cycle practices encourage choosing a single design-and-requirements option early in the development process. But if that starting point is wrong, then future adjustments take too long and can lead to a suboptimal long-term 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 better economic outcomes.

#4 – Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles

Develop solutions incrementally in a series of short iterations. Each iteration results in an integrated increment of a working system. Subsequent iterations build on the previous ones. Increments allow fast customer feedback and risk mitigation. They also may become minimum viable products (MVPs) or prototypes for market testing and validation. 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 benefit. 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 in which to evaluate the solution frequently and throughout the development life cycle. This regular evaluation provides the financial, technical, and fitness-for-purpose governance needed to assure that a continuing investment will produce a commensurate return.

#6 – Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths

Lean enterprises strive to achieve a state of continuous flow, where new system capabilities move quickly and visibly from concept to cash. There are three keys to implementing flow:

1. Visualize and limit the amount of work in process (WIP) to limit demand to actual capacity.
2. Reduce the batch sizes of work to facilitate fast and reliable flow through the system.
3. Manage queue lengths to reduce the wait times for new capabilities

#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 tools needed to operate effectively in the presence of uncertainty, inherent in product development.

#8 – Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

Lean-Agile leaders understand that ideation, innovation, and the engagement of knowledge workers can’t generally be motivated by individual incentive compensation. After all, individual objectives cause internal competition and destroy the cooperation necessary to achieve the larger aim of the system. Providing autonomy and purpose—while minimizing constraints—leads to higher levels of employee engagement, resulting in better outcomes for customers and the enterprise.

#9 – Decentralize decision-making

Achieving fast value delivery requires fast, decentralized decision-making. This reduces delays, improves product development flow, enables faster feedback, and creates more innovative solutions by those closest to the local knowledge. However, some decisions are strategic, 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 ensuring a fast flow of value.


Learn More

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

Last update: 28 October, 2017