A long-term relationship between purchaser and supplier is necessary for best economy.

—W. Edwards Deming



Supplier is an internal or external organization that develops and delivers components, subsystems, or services that help Solution Trains provide Solutions to their Customers.

Lean-Agile teams deliver value to their customers in the shortest possible lead time, with the highest possible quality. Wherever applicable, they engage suppliers to develop and deliver components and subsystems that help them achieve their mission. Suppliers possess competencies and distinctive skills and solutions. They are experts in their technology and can provide a high leverage point for fast and economical delivery. Therefore, suppliers participate in most solution trains, and value delivery depends heavily on their performance.

This article discusses how suppliers are integrated into the solution. How this is accomplished depends somewhat on the supplier’s development and delivery methods. Nonetheless, the SAFe Enterprise treats suppliers as long-term business partners, involving them deeply in the solution. Further, these enterprises work with suppliers actively to help them adopt Lean-Agile Mindsets and practices. That increases the economic benefit to both parties.


Suppliers play a critical role in SAFe. Due to their unique Capabilities and solutions, they represent significant economic value opportunities. Achieving the overarching goal of delivering value to customers in the shortest sustainable lead time, suppliers can have a considerable impact on the enterprise’s Value Streams.

Suppliers can be external to the enterprise, or they can be other value streams within the organization. But enterprises are well aware that suppliers have their mission and their solutions to deliver to other clients as well, not to mention their own Economic Framework. For both organizations to achieve optimal results, close collaboration and trust are required.

Historically, however, industries have suffered from delegating supplier selection and contracting to purchase. The problem is that there may be more focus on pricing than on whether the supplier’s solutions and services are an optimal fit for the buyer’s purpose and culture, both now and in the future. Moreover, it can even be customary to routinely switch suppliers in search of the lowest price and to resource suppliers across the globe in the most economical cost venue. Then, after a business secures a supplier, they are often held at arm’s length and notified of information only on a need-to-know basis. With little discussion, they are regularly assigned specifications, timelines, and even pricing.

The Lean-Agile enterprise takes a different view, one that maintains a longer-term economic perspective via a collaborative, ongoing, and trusted relationship with suppliers. They become an extension of the culture and ethos of the enterprise; they are treated as true partners. Their capabilities, policies, and economics are surfaced and understood.

However, reaching this state can be a challenge if the supplier’s basic mindset, philosophy, and development approach are materially different from that of the buyer. There are two cases to be considered: one in which the supplier has embraced and adopted Lean-Agile development, and the other in which they have not. Most typically, the larger enterprise must address both, but the goal is the same—a more cooperative, long-term, adaptive, and transparent partnership.

Working with Lean-Agile Suppliers

Involving Lean-Agile suppliers as contributors to a portfolio value stream is the easier case. The working models and expectations are largely the same, and many current Lean-Agile practices can be simply assumed and extended:

In addition to their usual responsibilities and their contribution to the solution, suppliers treat the entire enterprise as their customer. That means that they will and should expect routine involvement from their customer (the enterprise/buyer) in their development value stream.

Working with Suppliers Using Traditional Methodologies

It’s a little trickier to work with suppliers who employ traditional, phase-gated methods for development. It simply isn’t reasonable or practical for a Lean-Agile enterprise to assume a supplier will instantly transition to a Lean-Agile paradigm. After all, some suppliers are much larger than their customers, and change is not always easy in the larger enterprise. (However, such an expectation may exist for the longer term.)

Due to differences in working models (ex., larger batch size, and non-incremental development), the enterprise may need to adjust its expectations:

  • Some initial up-front design time will be needed in the early PIs to allow suppliers to build their plans and to establish Milestones that they can demo or deliver. The supplier may expect more formal requirements and specifications.
  • The supplier will likely not deliver incrementally.
  • Changes to requirements and design need to be understood earlier, and the response time can be expected to be longer.

However, some expectations and behaviors can and should be imposed on these suppliers:

  • In the pre-PI planning meeting, they should indicate the upcoming milestones and their progress toward them.
  • In the solution demo, the supplier should present the accomplishment during the PI timebox, even if these are documents and not working systems. They should also provide feedback on the demos of the other trains.
  • Involvement in the I&A workshop is crucial, as many of these suppliers will have longer learning cycles. They should use this opportunity to raise problems encountered in their working process.

In addition, suppliers may have limited flexibility in adjusting their plans, and, as a result, other trains will have to be flexible to accommodate their needs.

(Note: For more information on working with suppliers using traditional methods see the guidance articles, Mixing Agile and Waterfall Development and Technical Strategies for Agile and Waterfall Interoperability at Scale.)

Applying Systems Thinking and Decentralizing Decision-Making

Since the goal is to improve the solution train and the flow of value as a whole, it’s important to apply systems thinking at all levels of decision-making about how and how much to involve suppliers. The cadence of integration with the supplier, for example, is impacted by their method of work and also by the transaction cost of the integration. Likewise, how far decisions can be decentralized to suppliers depends on Solution Context. For example, if the supplier is creating a subsystem that interfaces with the solution through well-established standards, it’s easier to let them take more control. But if it’s a proprietary interface that impacts several other suppliers, and thus has economies of scale, more negotiation is required. Also, in a highly changing environment, constant collaboration and integration are more important than in environments that are more static.

In addition, setting very specific design requirements might be important in certain contexts, but might drive poor outcomes in situations in which capabilities and Nonfunctional Requirements (NFRs) cross several trains. There, over-specification could cause the supplier to over-invest in an NFR.

It is important for each solution train to incorporate such thinking into their economic framework and manage their relationships with suppliers accordingly.

Collaborating with Suppliers

Collaboration with suppliers occurs at all levels of SAFe. It starts by sharing Strategic Themes. As Liker and Choi state, “Honda tells the suppliers what kinds of products it intends to introduce and what types of markets it plans to cultivate in the coming years [4].” For suppliers to be aligned with the enterprise, it is important that solution developers share what they’re going to build.

It’s also important to make sure they understand the economic framework that the solution train is working under. And, finally, it is equally vital for the purchaser to understand the economic framework of the supplier so that win-win relationships can be built. Liker and Choi state, “Toyota uses the term genchi genbutsu or gemba (actual location and actual parts or materials) to describe the practice of sending executives to see and understand for themselves how suppliers work [4].”

Collaboration continues by building the requirements together with the suppliers. Solution Management works with suppliers continuously and collaboratively to write capabilities and then decompose them into FeaturesSolution Architect/Engineering works with their supplier counterparts to design the solution. Again quoting Liker and Choi, “At the Toyota Technical Center, the ‘design-in’ room houses suppliers who work in the same room on the same project [4].”

The same collaboration should cascade down. Agile Teams develop the actual solution, so it is important to have open communication channels with the supplier’s engineers to collaborate on the best design, given the constraints of the architecture and the economic framework. As Toyota’s supplier guidelines state, “Automobile manufacturing at Toyota is a joint endeavor with suppliers and Toyota. To succeed in that endeavor, we and our suppliers need to work together as a single company. We must maintain close communication, exchanging ideas frankly and coming to terms with each other on all matters of importance [2].”

To enable early integration and improve quality, suppliers and ARTs need to share interfaces, tests, and simulators. All such interfaces should be documented in Solution Intent so that the information is available to everyone.

Suppliers should, to the greatest degree possible, participate in Continuous Exploration and in relentless improvement by delivering smaller batches into the Continuous Delivery Pipeline.

Selecting Suppliers

As solutions get more complex, there is a general market shift away from suppliers that create parts and components and toward suppliers that create higher-value, integrated systems. Even in industries where suppliers provide work for hire, there is a shift from hiring individuals to sourcing whole Agile teams, and even to sourcing entire ARTs.

This makes selecting the right suppliers even more critical. It’s a long-term, high-value proposition. To make the right choice, multiple participants from engineering and purchasing will need to be involved in supplier selection. Since the Lean-Agile enterprise will generally seek fewer suppliers (but enduring relationships with each), these perspectives can better consider the long-term culture and process fit of the two organizations.

Helping Suppliers Improve

It’s easier and more productive to work with Lean-Agile suppliers; they can better fit within the cadence of the enterprise and adapt their plans as needed. In addition, trying to improve the value stream without improving supply chains is not optimal. To solve these problems, Lean-Agile enterprises work with their suppliers to improve their processes and results, to the benefit of both companies. Liker and Choi observe, “While other automakers devote one day to a week to developing suppliers, Honda commits 13 weeks to its development program… . Honda’s best practices program has increased suppliers’ productivity by about 50 percent, improved quality by 30 percent, and reduced costs by 7 percent. That isn’t entirely altruistic; suppliers have to share 50 percent of the cost savings with Honda [4].”

Inviting suppliers to join I&A workshops and other relentless improvement activities, as well as sending engineers who are proficient in Lean and Agile to help suppliers improve their processes, can have a major impact on lead times and costs.

Agile Contracts

To facilitate effective working relationships with suppliers, it’s important to build an environment of trust between the parties. But that’s hard to do when the contracts governing the relationship assume something entirely different.

Traditional contracts often lead to undesirable results. Deming notes, “There is a bear trap in the purchase of goods and services based on a price tag that people don’t talk about. To run the game of cost-plus in industry, a supplier offers a bid so low that he is almost sure to get the business. He gets it. The customer discovers that an engineering change is vital. The supplier is very obliging, but ‘regrets,’ he discovers, that this change will double the cost of the items [1].”

While this is still somewhat common in today’s market, it does not optimize the economic benefit for either party. In its place, Lean-Agile buyers and suppliers collaborate and embrace change, to the benefit of both parties. These relationships are built on trust. Increasingly, these relationships can be built via Agile Contracts, which provide a better way of working. This isn’t new, as Toyota notes, “Contracts governing the relationships are ambiguous, consisting of general statements and nonbinding targets [3].”

Learn More

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

[2] “Toyota Supplier CSR Guidelines.” 2012. http://www.toyota-global.com/sustainability/society/partners/supplier_csr_en.pdf.

[3] Aoki, Katsuki and Thomas Taro Lennerfors. “New, Improved Keiretsu.” Harvard Business Review. September 2013.

[4] Liker, Jeffrey and Thomas Y. Choi. “Building Deep Supplier Relationships.” Harvard Business Review. December 2004.

Last update: 16 November 2017