“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

— Dr. Carol S. Dweck, Author and Psychology Professor at Stanford University

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

SAFe is firmly grounded in four bodies of knowledge: Lean, Agile, systems thinking, and DevOps. In fact, the genesis of SAFe was to develop guidance for enterprises on how to apply the principles and practices of Lean and Agile in the world’s largest organizations. For leaders, it requires a broader and deeper Lean-Agile mindset to drive the organizational change required to adopt Lean and Agile at scale across the entire enterprise.

The Lean-Agile mindset forms the cornerstone of a new management approach and an enhanced company culture that enables Business Agility. It provides leadership with the tools needed to drive a successful SAFe transformation, helping individuals and the entire enterprise achieve their goals.


Mindset Awareness and Openness to Change

A mindset is the 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 each day. Through a lifetime of structured learning (classes, reading) and unstructured lessons (life events, work experience), we form our mindsets. 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. For example, many leaders develop beliefs through business school training and on-the-job experiences that are grounded in legacy waterfall, stage-gated, and siloed ways of working.

So how can mindsets be changed? It begins with an awareness of how one’s current mindsets 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). Leaders must remain open to the possibility that existing mindsets based on traditional management practices need to evolve in order to guide the organizational change required to become a Lean enterprise. [3]

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

The next two sections describe the key elements of Lean and Agile that form the basis of the Lean-Agile mindset.

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. Lean thinking can be summarized as follows [7]:

  • Precisely specify value by product
  • Identify the value stream for each product
  • Make value flow without interruptions
  • Let the customer pull value from the producer
  • Pursue perfection

Along with these core tenets of lean thinking, the SAFe House of Lean, as illustrated in Figure 2, was inspired by houses of Lean from Toyota and others.

Figure 2. 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.

The driving force behind this new behavior is a generative culture, which is characterized by a positive, safe, performance-centric environment [8]. Achieving this culture 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.

When there’s an urgency for positive change, transforming culture is possible. First, understand and implement the SAFe values and principles. Second, deliver winning results. The culture will change naturally over time.

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 sustainable value delivery, effective Built-In Quality practices, relentless improvement, and evidence-based governance based on working components of the solution.

The principles of flow are an essential part of the Lean-Agile mindset. These include understanding the full Development 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). One critical move that organizations must address to achieve flow is the shift from a start-stop-start project management process to an agile product management approach aligned to long-lived development value streams.

Lean-Agile principles provide a better understanding of the system development process by incorporating new thinking, tools, and techniques. Leaders and teams can use them to move from a phase-gated approach to a DevOps approach with 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:

  • Hire, coach, and mentor innovation and entrepreneurship in the organization’s workforce
  • Go see…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 to enable purposeful innovation. This 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, getting fast feedback on experiments, and defining a Vision, Roadmap, and set of Features that bring the most promising innovations to market.
  • Validate the innovation with customers, then pivot without mercy or guilt when the hypothesis needs to change.
  • Engage both top-down strategic thinking with organic team-based innovations to create a synergistic ‘innovation riptide’ that powers a tidal wave of new products, services, and capabilities.

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
  • Reinforce the problem-solving mindset throughout the organization, where all are empowered to engage in daily improvements to the work
  • Reflect at key milestones to openly identify and address the shortcomings of the process at all levels
  • Apply Lean tools and techniques to determine the fact-based root cause of inefficiencies and apply effective countermeasures rapidly

Additional guidance on the importance of innovation and relentless improvement in achieving business agility can be found in the Continuous Learning Culture competency article.

Foundation – Leadership

The foundation of Lean is leadership, a key enabler for team success. Leaders are ultimately responsible for the successful adoption of the Lean-Agile approach. According to management consultant and efficiency expert W. Edwards Deming, “Such a responsibility cannot be delegated” [9] to direct reports, Lean-Agile champions, working groups, a Program Management Office (PMO), process teams, outside consultants, or any other party. Therefore, leaders must be trained in these new and innovative ways of thinking and exhibit the principles and behaviors of Lean-Agile leadership.

From a leadership perspective, Lean is different than Agile. Agile was developed as a team-based process for a small group of cross-functional, dedicated individuals who were empowered, skilled, and needed to build working functionality in a short time box. Management was not part of this definition. But excluding management from the way of working doesn’t scale in an enterprise. By contrast, in Lean, managers are leaders who embrace the values of Lean, are competent in the basic practices, and teach these practices to others. They proactively eliminate impediments and take an active role in driving organizational change and facilitating relentless improvement.

Additional guidance on leadership as the foundation of Lean-Agile transformation using SAFe can be found in the Lean-Agile Leadership competency article.

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 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. [10] In the years 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 the Agile Manifesto

The Manifesto consists of the value statement shown in Figure 3:

Figure 3. Values of the Agile Manifesto

We Are Uncovering Better Ways

The first phrase of the manifesto deserves emphasis: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.”

We interpret this as describing an ongoing journey of discovery to increasingly embrace Agile behaviors, a journey with no end. SAFe is not a fixed, frozen-in-time framework. As soon as we uncover better ways of working, we adapt the framework, as evidenced by more than six major releases as of the current version (SAFe 5.1).

Where We Find Value

We’ll discuss the four values of the Agile Manifesto shortly, but the final phrase is also important and sometimes overlooked: “That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

Some people may misinterpret the value statements as a binary decision between two choices (e.g., working software versus comprehensive documentation), but that’s not the intended meaning. Both items have value; however, the item on the left has more value (i.e., working software). The Agile Manifesto is not rigid or dogmatic. Instead, it embraces the need to balance the values based on the context.

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.” So, agile processes in frameworks like Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe do 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.

In a distributed environment, tools are critically important to assist with communication and collaboration (e.g., video conferencing, text messaging, ALM  tools, and wikis). This is especially true at scale. However, tools should supplement, rather than replace, face-to-face communication.

Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation

Documentation is important and has value. But creating documents for the sake of complying with potentially outdated corporate governance models has no 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 to get their feedback. Therefore, favor working software. 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 the development process. To convey the rights, responsibilities, and economic concerns of each party, contracts are often necessary—but recognize that contracts can over-regulate what to do and how to do it. No matter how well they’re written, they don’t replace regular communication, collaboration, and trust. 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.

Responding to Change over Following a Plan

Change is a reality that the development process must reflect. The strength of Lean-Agile development 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 in understanding add value to our system.

Of course, the manifesto phrase “over following a plan” indicates that there is, in fact, a plan! Planning is an important part of Agile development. Indeed, Agile teams and programs plan more often and more continuously than their counterparts using a waterfall process. 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 (e.g., following a plan in the face of evidence that the plan is not working).

Agile Manifesto Principles

The Agile Manifesto shown in Figure 4 has 12 principles that support its values. These principles take those values a step further and specifically describe what it means to be Agile.

Figure 4. Principles of the Agile Manifesto

Most of these principles are self-explanatory. They need no elaboration, except for a discussion of applying the Agile Manifesto at scale, which is covered next.

The combination of values and principles in the manifesto creates a framework for what the Snowbird attendees believed was the essence of Agile. There is mounting evidence from success stories in all industries across every geography demonstrating the extraordinary business and personal benefits conferred by this new way of thinking and working. We are grateful for it.

Applying the Agile Manifesto at Scale

The brief document that launched this massive movement is more than 19 years old. Since then, not one word has changed. So, it’s fair to ask, given all the advancements in the last 19 years: Is the Agile Manifesto still relevant? Or should it be treated like a historical document that has long since served its purpose?

What’s more, Agile was defined for small, potentially fast-moving software-only teams. And that raises another valid question: Does the Agile Manifesto scale? Does it meet the needs of enterprises developing the biggest and most complex software and systems? Does it serve the needs of systems that require hundreds of people to build them and have unacceptably high costs of failure? What about non-technical teams throughout the enterprise who are beginning to adopt many of the values and principles of the manifesto? Feedback from the 20,000+ organizations using the Agile guidance in SAFe indicates that the Agile Manifesto does indeed scale. However, many principles require increased emphasis at scale, while others require a more expanded perspective. The Agile Manifesto remains as relevant today as ever, perhaps even more so. We’re fortunate to have it, and it plays a vital role in SAFe.

SAFe integrates the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto throughout the framework. For example, Principles 1 and 3 describe the frequent delivery of value to the customer. SAFe practices promote delivery as frequently as possible (as often as multiple times daily) to benefit the customer and to provide the validated learning that improves future development. SAFe’s System Demo at the end of every iteration and the PI System Demo and Solution Demo at each PI boundary evaluate progress based on working products and components. SAFe integrates business and product owners and product and solution managers into backlog refinement, demos, PI planning, Inspect & Adapt, and more, which illustrates its commitment to Principle 4. Team Retrospectives, as well as the Inspect & Adapt events for ARTs and Solution Trains, support Principle 12 of the Manifesto. From top to bottom, SAFe embraces Agile and incorporates its best practices throughout the enterprise.

Lean-Agile leaders advance the adoption of Agile by first gaining in-depth knowledge of Agile principles and then leading by example through incorporating Agile practices into how they perform their responsibilities. They do this through training, self-study, applying what they learn, and discussing breakthroughs and challenges with their peers. Leaders also support their teams as they embrace the Lean-Agile mindset by providing training, by providing coaching, and by being a model for others to follow.

Learn More

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

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

[8] Accelerate: The 2018 State of DevOps Report. http://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/state-of-devops-2018.pdf

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

[10] Manifesto for Agile Software Development. http://AgileManifesto.org/


Last update: 27 September 2021