SAFe: The Lean Mindset

An interesting aspect of the SAFe framework is that it tries to combine two agile mindsets. The first mindset is the iterative mindset of methods like Scrum. It’s a cornerstone of agile development and SAFe “scales” it from the team-level to the program-level, for instance with the PI Planning.

Another mindset in SAFe is the lean mindset. The lean mindset is not about iteration, but about optimising the flow of value.

Lean came initially from manufacturing where the goal is to (1) reduce the time to produce physical good, and (2) reduce the “inventory” needed in the process, and (3) reduce the “waste” produced during manufacturing. In manufacturing, managing inventory requires warehousing and logistics, this costs money. Materials that end up as waste cost money too but do not produce value. To reduce delivery time, each step in the delivery process must be optimised and wait time be reduced to the minimum.

These ideas can be translated to the software world if we consider that features under development are “inventory” and the development process is a pipeline that can be optimised. Features under development are “inventory” since they don’t produce value but must be managed. Waste is a bit harder to map but it represents all the unnecessary work that end up not being used (think of unused design document, analysis, etc.). The development pipeline can take many forms but is always a variation of define, build, verify, and release. The quicker a feature can transition in the pipeline the faster you produce value.

Lean in itself doesn’t require iteration. Iterations are needed to manage uncertainty and course-correct the product development in the face of new information. Lean is about optimising a delivery process. But the delivery process could be about the delivery of a similar item every time, like cars in the manufacturing world.

But Lean is also a great complement to iterative approaches like Scrum. In this case, the goal of the lean mindset is in a way to optimise the iteration speed. Rather than having several features with long delivery time, focus on few features and short delivery time.

SAFe emphasises the lean mindset with concepts like the continuous delivery pipeline and value stream mapping. Besides presiding over the process, the RTE are also charged to improve the flow of value in the organisation.

The lean mindset isn’t as established as the iterative mindset. I find it interesting that SAFe integrates it and promotes it. We conducted a value stream mapping session at work, and it was very enlightening. Thinking in waiting time, inventory, waste does indeed work in the software world, too.

It’s a simple way to highlight process and organisational issues. It gives clarity to what should be optimised and not get lost in organisation design. Chances are, if you want to reduce waiting time, you will have to solve a bunch of other problems first. The lean mindset positions these problems not as end in themselves, but as bottlenecks to short delivery time. It helps you prioritize these problems. It’s a bit like Test-driven Development (TDD). Making things testable requires that you figure out a good design first. But assessing testability is easier than assessing “good design”. In the case of Lean, minimising “waiting time” requires that you figure out a good organisation first, but measuring “waiting time” is easier than measuring “good organisation”.

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