What is SAFe?

If your organization is seeking efficient project delivery, decreased time-to-market, and increased stakeholder value, then the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) may be right for you.

Larger organizations tend to move more slowly — and be more change-resistant — than smaller, more nimble competitors. Much of this can be chalked up to deep-rooted cultural issues of being a larger incumbent, and to policy- and process-based barriers, as bureaucracy tends to flourish in broader corporate environments.

Still, many larger organizations seek to capture the benefits of agile development, for which they may not be naturally suited. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a powerful tool that can be adopted to help larger organizations overcome issues that negatively impact project success.

SAFe offers large organizations a framework for becoming more agile so that their deliverables can reach the market faster. Here is an overview of SAFe and its benefits and principles, as well as tips on how to effectively implement the framework and its methodologies.

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

The Scaled Agile Framework encompasses a set of principles, processes, and best practices that helps larger organizations adopt agile methodologies, such as Lean, Kanban, and Scrum, to develop and deliver high-quality products and services faster. SAFe is particularly well-suited to complex projects that involve multiple large teams at the project, program, and portfolio levels.

SAFe provides larger organizations with a way to leverage the benefits of Scrum and Kanban in a more scalable way. It enables larger organizations to manage projects with a higher degree of agility, offering a way for stakeholders across multiple groups to get feedback faster. This accelerated feedback loop leads to higher engagement levels, increased productivity and job satisfaction, and improved work quality.

SAFe principles

SAFe is built on nine key principles derived from existing Lean and agile principles:

1. Take an economic view to allow for optimal lead time while providing the best quality and value.
2. Implement systems thinking into all facets of development.
3. Assume market and technical variability by preserving choices and encouraging innovation.
4. Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles that allow customer feedback and reduce risks.
5. Base milestones on objective estimation and evaluation of working systems to ensure there is an economic benefit.
6. Limit the amount of work in progress, decrease batch sizes, and manage queue lengths to enable continuous flow.
7. Apply cadence (timing), synchronize with cross-domain formation to recognize business opportunities and allow for corrective action as needed.
8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers to reach their unseen potential.
9. Decentralize decision-making to become more agile and effective.

SAFe 5.0

The current version, SAFe 5.0, focuses on Lean enterprise and business agility as well as the following five core competencies:

Lean agile leadership: Lean agile leaders drive change and operational excellence, leading by example to help ensure teams reach their potential. This involves modeling SAFe’s Lean agile mindset, principles, and practices.

Team and technical agility: Teams must possess certain vital skills and adhere to Lean agile practices to create well-designed solutions quickly. Ensuring the technical agility of teams is especially important, as they are the ones who ultimately perform the actual work that will be delivered to your customers.

DevOps and release on demand: The establishment of a continual, ongoing pipeline for deliverables is vital for creating value to meet your customers’ needs.

Business solutions and Lean systems engineering: The more organizations facilitate Lean agile practices to drive blueprints, development, and deployment, the more innovative they can be.

Lean portfolio management: A sound organizational strategy that includes financial considerations, portfolio management and compliance-related aspects is essential to SAFe success.

SAFe agile methodologies

Teams often use SAFe to scale agile methodologies such as Lean, Kanban, and Scrum. The key is recognizing SAFe is about scaling up in larger teams and organizations and complex projects versus smaller ones that don’t necessarily require the SAFe framework. SAFe doesn’t change the principles of the other methodologies.

Kanban focuses on ongoing collaboration and fosters an environment of continuous learning and improvement. It uses visual boards and cards to help teams see complete, in progress, and outstanding tasks.

Lean development (LD) focuses on reducing waste while maximizing output and increasing stakeholder value. Lean follows seven key principles: reduce waste, improve quality, share knowledge with others, remain in a state of continuous improvement and faster turnaround.

Scrum uses interactive sessions or “30-day sprints” to determine prioritized tasks. Small teams may be assembled to focus on specific tasks independently and then meet with the Scrum master to evaluate progress or results and reprioritize backlogged tasks.

SAFe vs. DAD vs. LeSS

While SAFe focuses on alignment, teamwork, and provisioning across a large number of agile teams, there are other popular frameworks for scaling agile at larger organizations, including Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS) and Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD). It is important to understand each of these frameworks so that your organization can select the best option for your projects.

SAFe: Practitioners created the Scaled Agile Framework by investing in three main bodies of knowledge: agile software system development, systems thinking, and Lean product development. It has been a well-recognized approach to scaling agile practices.

Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD): DAD is focused on the end-to-end lifecycle of products, from inception to delivery. It is driven by seven principles: delight customers, be awesome, pragmatism, context counts, choice is good, optimize flow, and enterprise awareness.

Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS): LeSS focuses on getting all teams seeing the entire product rather than taking the view from a “my part” perspective.

SAFe agile process flow

There are 12 general processes organizations should follow to implement SAFe, although it is important to note that each step should be modified as needed to fit your organizational needs.

1. Recognize and communicate the need for change: Many factors may prompt the need for organizational change, including shifts in industry legislation, best practices, or desired goals. Company leadership needs to identify and communicate the business reasons for the shift to SAFe, and then mentor and motivate stakeholders to ensure all activities are aligned with the vision for change.
2. Identify and train change agents: Leadership must identify people across the organization who can be change agents and facilitate their training as Certified SAFe Program Consultants. These change agents will be responsible for training business leaders and other stakeholders in SAFe practices and processes.
3. Get executives and managers on board: Executives must also be trained so they can model behavior around the same Lean agile views and practices.
4. Create a Lean agile center of excellence: Creating a center of excellence (CoE) will help ensure companywide optimized performance rather than simply practicing agile project management within specific domains.
5. Identify value streams and agile release trains (ARTs): Value streams refer to the value that a business provides its customers, while ARTs are the agile teams that develop solutions that create value. It is this combination of people, internal processes, and technology that will deliver value to your customers.
6. Prioritize and roadmap: Goals must be prioritized and a roadmap must be set to accomplish the vision for your SAFe transformation. Implementation involves selecting the first value stream, then selecting the first ART, and repeating this process.
7. Define parameters for each ART launch: Define the ART, set deadlines, assemble agile teams, train personnel, and perform readiness assessments. It’s also important to undertake backlog program preparation.
8. Train teams and ensure everyone understands their role: The individuals that work as a team to develop the business systems are essential to each ART’s success. Everyone must fully grasp their role and possess the skills to do their job successfully.
9. Execute your ART: Proper execution relies on excelling at iteration planning, backlog refinement, daily standups, iteration reviews and system demo, and iteration retrospectives, as well as Scrum-of-Scrums, PO Sync, and ART Sync.
10. Launch more ARTs and value streams: Subsequent, prioritized ARTs should be launched as above, by training teams, coaching ART execution, and giving each ART the necessary time and effort to succeed without skipping steps or diligence.
11. Extend to the portfolio level to lead business transformation: It is time now to apply all of the above steps at the portfolio level to set the overall culture, improve companywide performance, and increase goal attainment.
12. Sustain and improve operational effectiveness company-wide: Continued success depends on seeking ways to take advantage of new opportunities and find improvements. Business leaders should also be operating with a continuous Lean agile mindset.