SAFe Lean-Agile Principles

A system must be managed. It will not manage itself. Left to themselves, components become selfish, competitive, independent profit centers, and thus destroy the system. The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organization. [1]

—W. Edward Deming

Principle #2 – Apply systems thinking

The three foundational bodies of knowledge of SAFe are Systems Thinking, Agile development and Lean Product development. Systems thinking takes a holistic approach to solution development; one that incorporates all aspects of a system and its environment into the design, development, deployment, and maintenance of the system itself.

Figure 1 illustrates three primary aspects of systems thinking.

Figure 1. Aspects of systems thinking
Figure 1. Three aspects of systems thinking

Understanding these aspects helps leaders and teams navigate the complexity of solution development, the organization, and the larger picture of total time to market. Each is described below.

The Solution is a System

solution-icon-100SAFe provides guidance for the development and deployment of complex software and cyber-physical systems. Such systems are represented by the SAFe Solution object, which is the subject of each value stream. This is the tangible object—the application, satellite, medical device or web site—that delivers end user value. When it comes to such tangible systems, Deming’s comment that “a system must be managed” leads to a number of critical insights:

  • Systems builders must clearly understand the boundaries of the system, what it is, and how it interacts with the environment and systems around it.
  • Optimizing a component does not optimize the system. System builders must assure that the components do not become selfish and hog the resources they need—computing power, memory, electrical power, whatever—that other elements need.
  • For the system to behave well as a system, intended system behavior, and some higher level understanding of its architecture (how the components work together to accomplish the aim of the system) must be understood. The intentional design of a system is fundamental to systems thinking.
  • The value of a system passes through its interconnections; those interfaces—and the dependencies they create—are critical elements of providing ultimate value. Continuous attention to those interfaces and interactions is vital.
  • A system can evolve no faster than its slowest integration point; the faster the full system can be integrated and evaluated, the faster the actual knowledge of the system grows

The Enterprise Building the System is a System, too

enterprise-ico-100 There is a second aspect to systems thinking as well: the people, management, and processes of the organization that builds the system are also system. The understanding that systems must be managed applies here as well. Otherwise, the components of the organization building the system will locally optimize and become selfish, limiting the rate and quality of overall value delivery. This leads to another set of organizational systems thinking insights:

  • Building complex systems is a social endeavor. Therefore, leaders must facilitate the creation of an environment where people can collaborate on the best way to build better systems.
  • Suppliers and customers are integral to the value stream. They must be treated as partners, based on a long-term foundation of trust.
  • Optimizing a component does not optimize the system, here either. Locally optimizing teams or functional departments does not optimize the flow of value through the enterprise.
  • Value crosses organizational boundaries. Accelerating value delivery requires the elimination of functional silos, or the creation of virtual cross-functional organizations, such as an Agile Release Train.

Understand and Optimize the Full Value Stream

value-stream-icon-100Value Streams are fundamental constructs in SAFe. The entire SAFe portfolio is considered to be a collection of value streams, each of which delivers one or more solutions to the market. As illustrated in Figure 2, each value stream consists of the sequence of steps necessary to get a new concept integrated and deployed via a new or existing system.

Figure 2. The solution development Value Stream
Figure 2. The solution development Value Stream

This third aspect of systems thinking—understanding and optimizing the full value stream—is the only way to reduce the total time it takes to go from “concept to cash”.[2] Systems thinking mandates that leaders and practitioners understand and continuously optimize the full value stream, especially as it crosses technical and organizational boundaries.

One primary tool is value stream mapping, a systematic way to look at all the steps required to produce value. In so doing, leaders quickly recognize that the actual value added processing steps—the creation of code and components, deployment, validation etc.—consume only a small portion of the total time to market. This recognition drives these leaders to constantly focus on the delays between steps. An example of a value stream map is provided in Figure 3. Note that all most all the time between feature request and deployment is wait time; resulting in a highly time-inefficient process.

Figure 3. Value stream mapping example: most of the time is wait time
Figure 3. Value stream mapping example: most of the time is wait time

Only Management Can Change the System

Everyone is already doing their best; the problems are with the system … only management can change the system.

—W. Edwards Deming

This Deming quote prepares us for a final set of insights: systems thinking requires a new approach to management as well, a perspective where managers are problem solvers, take the long view, proactively evolve impediments, and lead the organizational changes necessary to improve the systems that limit performance.  These Lean-Agile leaders:

  • Exhibit and teach systems thinking and Lean-Agile values, principles and practices.
  • Constantly engage in solving problems and eliminating roadblocks and ineffective internal systems.
  • Apply and teach root-cause analysis and corrective action techniques.
  • Collaborate with the teams to reflect at key milestones, and identify and address shortcomings.
  • Take a long-term view, investing in enabling capabilities such as infrastructure, practices, tools and training provide the foundation for faster value delivery, and higher quality and productivity


Understanding these systems thinking aspects helps leaders and teams truly understand “why they are doing”, “what they are doing”, and the impact on those around them. In turn, this leads to a leaner and smarter enterprise, one that can better navigate the organization and solution development complexities, leading to better business outcomes.

Learn More

[1] Deming, W. Edwards. The New Economics. MIT Press, 1994.

[2] Mary and Tom Poppendieck. Implementing Lean Software Development. Addison-Wesley, 2006.

Last update: 24 August 2016