GUIDE 2022

What is SAFe?

Today, over 20,000 enterprises worldwide harness the power of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), scaling agile practices across many teams.

This article discusses SAFe, its core concepts, principles, benefits, and how it compares with other frameworks. 

What is SAFe?  

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a set of principles and workflows that provide the necessary knowledge and guidance on scaling agile practices to a larger number of teams. SAFe helps tackle the problems associated with aligning multiple teams together to deliver the expected business outcomes. It promotes collaboration and alignment within many teams, providing a structured approach or scalability. Therefore, understanding SAFe helps larger enterprises deliver successful products to the market faster.

SAFe Agile Framework

Credits: Muy Agile

Over the past few years, many organizations adopt successful agile and lean development project management practices. Nonetheless, when the projects need to expand beyond a single team, organizations face challenges in coordinating and managing them together to achieve the expected product delivery results. Teams in larger projects suffer from pain points like lack of communication and a clear understanding of the requirements. These factors jeopardize the success of the entire project. SAFe is the best approach for organizations to mitigate such issues when scaling agile into multiple teams.

History of Scaled Agile Framework

Dean Leffingwell, an author, entrepreneur, and veteran in the software field, is the one who founded and developed SAFE in 2011 by publishing the article ‘The Agile Enterprise Big Picture,’. In this article, he presents SAFe as a viable solution to help organizations tackle issues when leveraging agile frameworks and practices such as Scrum,  Kanban, and Lean.
The Agile Enterprise Big Picture offers the knowledge and guidance on applying the agile frameworks to the Team, Program, and Portfolio by using the SAFe principles to provide a holistic view of the processes. Today, SAFe has become one of the most successful agile frameworks.

SAFe and Agile

Agile is a proven methodology for faster and continuous software development and delivery. In the beginning, organizations adopt agile for a single team. When they try to expand it to different teams, units, or departments with hundreds to thousands of employees, they face several challenges, including planning, communication, and alignment.  

The Agile Scrum Framework at a Glance

Credits: Knowledge Hut

  • SAFe helps scale the agile principles and values from a single team to entire organizations without compromising the agile values like customer-centricity, product quality, and team collaboration.
  • SAFe is based on Agile principles and values. It guides scaling them into even complicated and distributed business settings. SAFe helps expands the core values and principles to teams of teams linking related agile techniques such as DevOps and Lean Portfolio Management and improving the entire system processes. 
  • Implementing agile is not sufficient to improve the overall performance across multiple business units. SAFe helps organizations improve their business agility to stay competitive and survive in today’s changing markets. Companies with business agility in their business operating systems adapt to changes faster. Therefore, SAFe not only helps businesses to achieve scalability but also helps them respond to changing market requirements and opportunities faster and easier. 

Core Values of SAFe

There are four values SAFe focuses on alignment, built-in quality, transparency, and program execution. These core values help teams to adopt SAFe in an effective manner and get the maximum benefit from it.

Alignment

When practicing SAFe, everyone must be in tune with their organization’s goals rather than their personal goals. Teams must know the current business goals and synchronize with each other every day to get all the up-to-date information about what activities other team members are carrying out. This alignment must happen at all levels of the organization, including among persons at the managerial level. SAFe motivates upward and downward information flow, which helps teams to stay aligned.  

Built-in Quality

Quality is an important aspect. SAFe requires organizations to integrate into every phase of their development cycle. There are several built-in quality practices of SAFe that helps teams to achieve the high-quality standard. SAFe does not jeopardize the quality of the product for any other business gain. Project leaders ensure quality assurance by integrating it into the flow, architecture and design, code, system, and release. 

Transparency

When working on a large-scale development project, visibility into its progress and everything related to it is important to build trust among teams. Everything from project planning to delivery is transparent to every party involved. Even if there is an issue, they must be open about it so that everyone knows the project’s status at the detail level. 

Program Execution

The last SAFe core value emphasizes that program execution is more critical than maintaining comprehensive documentation. Each release must deliver the expected business value, and SAFe offers the required knowledge and guidance to understand everyone’s role and responsibilities to generate that value. 

SAFe Principles

The SAFe describes ten principles organizations need to scale their business deliveries. These ten principles arise from different frameworks and strategies like the agile principles, Lean Portfolio Managemen, systems thinking, lessons learned from several projects,  etc. These principles help organizations improve the overall business by influencing everyone involved in the business processes to take the right direction. 

Take an Economic View

Faster and early product delivery is insufficient to improve the organization’s overall performance.  Every individual in the organization needs to have a proper understanding of the economics of building systems. Knowing the economics of building systems helps the team to reach the shortest sustainable lead-time to deliver a high-quality and valuable product to the market. Team members within the organization must share economics-related responsibilities. All relevant parties must know the economic trade-offs, Cost of Delay (CoD), and costs associated with manufacturing, development, and operations. Also, the organizations must operate on the approved budget and establish a timeline for the completion of tasks to achieve the maximum value.  

Apply Systems Thinking

When it comes to large complex systems, they have several components operating together. If organizations want to enhance the system, optimizing one component is not enough to achieve an overall performance. What SAFe encourages is that everyone must know the vision of the entire system and how each part works together, getting a better understanding of the overall aim of the system. SAFe promotes this system of thinking not only to the system under development but also to the organization. From this systems thinking, organizations tackle the challenges in the workplace and the marketplace in a more efficient way. 

Assume Variability, Preserve Options

This principle focuses on the uncertainty associated with designing software and systems. We consider traditional design and development methods as a single design option throughout a larger period of the development life cycle. If any need arises, this makes future adjustments a complex, time-consuming, and tedious process leading to systems with bad designs. Organizations must maintain multiple requirements and design options known as ‘set-based’ design to avoid such complexities. The set-based design uses empirical data to make informed decisions at uncertain times, identifying the best options. 

Fast Integrated Learning Cycles

This SAFe principle helps organizations reduce risks and get faster customer feedback by promoting incremental development of products within shorter periods. Since project leaders develop the system in an incremental way, there is a system that always runs, and many valuable feathers build on top of previous increments. These incremental developments become integrated learning cycles. Some increments become minimum viable products (MVPs) and prototypes where end users test and validate the design.

Objective Evaluation of Working Systems

SAFe requires organizations to base their project on milestones. This forces them to evaluate the product throughout the entire development life cycle. Traditional project development with sequential milestones does not reduce the risks and challenges of developing the complete product. The integration points of Lean-Agile development provide a better solution to these problems.

This principle also requires everyone to share the responsibility of gaining the intended economic benefit or return on investment from regular evaluations. 

Visualize and Limit WIP

Organizations must achieve faster product deliveries to integrate new capabilities into existing systems and introduce new ones. SAFe points out three concepts to implement this flow or improve the delivery time and maximize the throughput. In the software development context, the first concept is reducing the work in process (WIP), including the amount of work and the complexity. The second concept is reducing the batch sizes. This allows teams for faster and more reliable deliveries and constant evaluation. The third concept is managing the queue length. This enables organizations to reduce the wait times for introducing new products to the market. 

Apply & Integrate Cadence

SAFe encourages applying cadence throughout the development process to keep a rhythm to the workflow. Cadence helps reduce risks, complexities, and uncertainties and improves predictability. In addition, it helps understand multiple perspectives. Synchronizing these cadences helps operate in multiple, complex, and distributed environments. 

Unlock Team Intrinsic Motivation

In a lean-agile development setting, generating new and innovative ideas and employee engagement is critical for the future of the business. Work environments that do not challenge employees cause them to lose motivation and stunt their growth. Personal incentives help team members to unlock their full potential and shift the focus from the overall business goal. Organizations must promote employee engagement through mutual influence, autonomy, and many more to unleash this team’s potential.  Unlocking the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers helps gain the best value for the organization and the customers. 

Decentralize Decision-Making

Another important principle to practice in adopting SAFe into your organization is practicing decentralized decision-making. Decentralized decision-making helps deliver products to the market faster, get faster customer feedback and develop innovative solutions by combining decisions of multiple people and business units. Also, centralized decision-making must happen in situations where avoiding it is either impossible or detrimental to product success. Therefore, it is important to establish a better decision-making process across the organization to promote employee engagement and faster process flows. 

Prioritize Value

The last SAFe principle emphasizes the importance of organizing around the value for faster and easier product deliveries. Some organizations organize around outdated traditional values and outdated principles that do not help them achieve the business agility required in this digital era. Although these principles help them achieve the speed of product deliveries, it is challenging for organizations to respond to changing customer requirements. Organizing around values instead of outdated principles helps improve the business agility, allowing them to adapt to changes quicker and easier and meet ever-changing customer demands with a positive attitude. 

Benefits of SAFe

Organizations now reap the benefits of embracing the SAFe Let’s take a closer look at some of these benefits. 

Improves the Time-to-Market

The most notable benefit of SAFe is the improvement seen in time-to-market. Organizations build products nowadays that involve multiple, complex, remote teams that align and work together to achieve a common goal. SAFe helps align these complex teams scaling agile principles and values. This helps them maintain effective communication, make informed decisions, and accelerate development. Research also has indicated that implementing SAFe helps coordinate multiple teams in complex initiatives and deliver maximum business value.

Improves Employee Engagement

Working with multiple teams threatens employee engagement. SAFe helps mitigate this problem by helping achieve decentralized decision-making, autonomy, and mastery. These are critical in unleashing the motivation of employees for innovation to persuade them to build smarter solutions for problems. This, in turn, helps to reduce the likelihood of employee burnout.

Increases Productivity and Efficiency

SAFe helps to boost the productivity and efficiency of teams in many ways. Better employee satisfaction is a key factor that affects productivity. Employees’ satisfaction boosts their morale and helps harness their best potential. Also, SAFe helps remove unnecessary processes, identify the risks and delays in work and put measures to mitigate them. Eliminating waste is also a way that helps improve work efficiency. the more high-performing teams improve, the better they build high-value products. 

Enhances Product Quality

Another big advantage of SAFe is allowing organizations to improve the quality of products they deliver to customers. Product quality forms an integral element in every stage of the development life cycle. All team members are responsible for maintaining product quality. When everyone has a sense of the importance of the quality of what they do, it helps organizations to execute successful workflows as well as deliver high-value products to the market. 

How to Implement SAFe?

Not every organization implements the SAFe in the right way. SAFe describes 12 steps to implement, which we discuss in this section. 

  1. Identify the tipping point

Organizations must establish a “clear and compelling reason for change” where they recognize that a particular course of action is no longer effective. The need to change arises from either a failed product functionality, the risk of failure or a visionary leadership striving for a better future. The team must therefore have a clear vision of their future that provides the purpose, motivation, and alignment. Then take an economic view and intended benefits from transforming to SAFe.

  1. Train Lean-Agile Change Agents

Once you have reached the tipping point, begin the next step of training the lean-agile change agents with the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to implement SAFe. Most of these change agents are Certified SAFe Program Consultants or SPCs who belong to external and internal teams like project managers, Architects, Analysts, and Process leads, among others.

  1. Train executives, managers, and other leaders

Next, train the leadership team to embrace the Lean-Agile Mindset. They need to focus on delivering value through continuous improvement and innovation. They must also embrace agility. Leaders must implement the values and principles of SAFe and learn these new skills through training courses and classes.

  1. Create the lean-agile center of excellence

After training your change agents and leaders, the next thing is to create a lean-agile center of excellence (LACE) or a small group of people dedicated to its implementation aligning with a common mission. Some of the key responsibilities of SAFE include communicating progress, business needs, coaching and training, implementation plan development, and establishing metrics. 

  1. Identifying Value Stream and ARTs

A value stream helps understand, organize, and deliver value in SAFe. Organizations need to understand operational and development value streams, convert them into Agile Release Trains or ARTs, and, wherever possible, break down larger value streams into smaller ones. 

  1. Create an implementation plan

Once you have done step 5, next, you need to create the implementation plan by first selecting the first value stream and ART. Then create a preliminary plan for additional ARTs and value streams.

  1. Prepare for the ART launch

After you have identified the value streams and ARTs and created the implementation plan, you are ready to prepare for the ART launch. First, discuss and decide on a date for the first Program Increment (PI) Planning event.

  1. Train teams and launch the ART

Now that you have prepared for the ART launch, train the team members using ‘big room training’ and let them understand their role in the ART. Then move forward with launching ART by taking place the first PI planning session and then move along with mentoring people on this change.

  1. Coach ART Execution

Successful SAFe transformation Program Consultants (SPCs) must leverage their knowledge on coaching the ART execution to establish effective agile practices and behaviors.

  1. Launch more ARTs and Value Streams

Execute the same three phases. That is, prepare for the launch, train teams, and coach ART execution.

  1. Extend the portfolio and accelerate

You have achieved significant outcomes by launching and executing ARTs and Value Streams by this point. As the last step, extend your portfolio, measure its performance, reinforce the basics, and cultivate a learning culture throughout the organization. 

Josh Fechter
Josh Fechter is the co-founder of Product HQ, founder of Technical Writer HQ, and founder and head of product of Squibler. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.