Be SAFe, Part 1 | Actonic – Unfolding your potential

Be SAFe, Part 1: Core Principles and Benefits of the Scaled Agile Framework

Agile has become the cornerstone of IT development, however, most agile methods (Scrum, extreme programming, etc) traditionally focus on teams of 3 to 9 people. Although larger enterprises may not be naturally suited for agile development, many of them are also seeking to capture the benefits of agile methods.

The Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe, was specifically designed to give larger enterprises a way to manage some of the challenges they face when practising agile. This article provides an overview of SAFe and its core principles, examines its benefits and weaknesses and compares SAFe to other agile methods.

What is SAFe?

The Scaled Agile Framework was introduced in 2011 by Dean Leffingwell and described how to leverage the benefits of existing agile methods at the Enterprise level. The framework is continuously improved and developed, and the latest Version 5.0 was released in January 2020. Today, SAFe is a set of principles, practices and workflows enabling larger companies to move towards an agile way of working and offers guidance at the Portfolio, Value Stream, Program, and Team levels.

 SAFe 5.0 focuses on seven core competencies that are essential to achieve true business agility:

  • Lean agile leadership: Leaders and managers are at the core of Lean-Agile development and business agility. They are the people who should support organizational change and effectiveness, embrace lifelong learning and the agile mindset and lead by example. It is up to the management to create the right environment and influence teams and individuals.
  • Team and technical agility: Teams must possess the necessary technical skills and follow agile principles to deliver high-quality solutions for the customers.
  • Agile product delivery: It is important to establish a continuous delivery pipeline that is customer-focused and creates real value.
  • Enterprise solution delivery: Companies need to apply Lean-Agile principles to develop, deploy and operate sophisticated enterprise-class solutions quickly, which requires cooperation and alignment of processes.
  • Lean portfolio management: A modernised approach to portfolio management, which aligns the strategy, funding and operations by applying Lean-Agile principles.
  • Organisational agility: A company should be able to adapt to the changing markets and requirements. In order to do so, everyone in the company should be trained in Lean and Agile methods, embrace the Lean-Agile principles and have the right mindset. These principles and mindset will then be applied to improve the business processes and company structure.
  • Continuous learning culture: A company should encourage continuous learning and drive innovation to exceed the expectations of employees, customers and society.

SAFe is based on 9 principles aimed at inspiring Lean-Agile decision-making across the organisation. It helps to improve the structure and processes as a whole and instil the right mindset – not just among leaders and managers, but among all the employees of a company. Here are the principles outlined in SAFe Version 5.0:

#1 Take an economic view.

#2 Apply systems thinking.

#3 Assume variability; preserve options.

#4 Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles.

#5 Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems.

#6 Visualize and limit Work in Process (WIP), reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths.

#7 Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning.

#8 Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers.

#9 Decentralize decision making.

How is SAFe implemented?

SAFe is a powerful tool for complex projects involving multiple teams. Scaled Agile, Inc. has developed a SAFe implementation roadmap describing 12 steps that organisations should follow to successfully implement SAFe.

Image: SAFe implementation roadmap, source: https://www.scaledagileframework.com/implementation-roadmap

Step 1. Reaching the tipping point. At this step, leaders and managers identify the need for organisational change and communicate this need to stakeholders and employees.

Step 2. Train lean-agile change agents. Managers should identify employees who will be trained and certified as SAFe Program Consultants. These people will later be responsible for implementing SAFe principles and practices across the company.

Step 3. Train executives, managers, and leaders. It is extremely important to train business leaders, as they are going to serve as role models and influence teams and individual employees and stakeholders.

Step 4. Create a Lean-Agile centre of excellence. A Centre of excellence is usually a small cross-functional team whose primary role is to ensure the optimised implementation of Lean-Agile principles across the organisation.

Step 5. Identify value streams and ARTs. Value streams refer to the value that a company creates for its customers and ARTs stand for agile release trains that deliver solutions which create value. An ART can consist of 50-125 people and is a team-of-agile-teams and the main SAFe construct.

Step 6. Create the implementation plan. At this step, company leaders should identify the main goals and work out a roadmap to achieve these goals.

Step 7. Prepare for ART launch. Before launching an ART, a company should define value, identify deadlines, assemble teams and train employees.

Step 8. Train teams and launch the ART. It is crucial that everyone understands their roles and possesses the necessary skills.

Step 9. Coach the ART execution. At this step, the focus is shifted from planning and training to coaching and supporting the ART.

Step 10. Launch more ARTs and value streams. Each subsequent ART should be launched in the same way as described above – preparing the ART, training teams and coaching the ART execution.

Step 11. Extend to the portfolio. After completing the steps above, a company should apply them at the portfolio level, which will result in the right culture and enhanced performance.

Step 12. Sustain and improve. Keep up the Lean-Agile mindset to leverage the new opportunities and seek further improvement.

Benefits and weaknesses

SAFe provides larger enterprises with the opportunity to take advantage of agile methodology in a more scalable way. The main benefits are:

  • enhanced cross-functional collaboration,
  • greater transparency,
  • alignment of all processes to strategic business goals, not just project goals,
  • increased productivity,
  • faster time to market,
  • increased employee engagement and job satisfaction,
  • better quality.

However, despite its multiple benefits, SAFe comes in for some criticism as not being truly agile and requiring a lot of upfront planning and process definition. Some people also note that SAFe’s top-down approach to project management may undermine some of the basic agile principles, such as collective ownership and less defined roles.

SAFe vs other agile frameworks

While SAFe has become a widely-loved framework across companies with large development teams, there are other popular frameworks for scaling agile at the enterprise level. It is important to understand each of these frameworks so that your company can choose the one which best meets its needs.

SAFe vs LeSS: LeSS scales the activities of Scrum to the team-of-teams level. While SAFe provides four configurations to accommodate larger teams, LeSS focuses on two configurations: LeSS for 2 to 8 teams, and LeSS Huge for more than 8 teams. LeSS also tends to be more customer-centric, prescribes that the product owner should have full content and strategy influence and puts emphasis on waste reduction, while SAFe takes a more flexible and democratic approach.

SAFe vs DaD: Within DaD framework, teams are allowed to decide on the tools, schedule and other aspects of a project, while SAFe offers a more top-down approach. The main principles of DaD are: delight customers, be awesome, pragmatism, context counts, choice is good, optimize flow, and enterprise awareness.

All in all, SAFe may be a viable option for a company to leverage the advantages of agile methods and scale agile across the enterprise, as it improves productivity, increases transparency and helps the company adapt to the fast-changing digital environment. However, its main principles and implementation steps should be closely examined and adjusted to the needs of a specific company. Feel free to contact us for more information, if your company needs consulting or training services to introduce SAFe. Our consultants will be happy to work out your specific requirements and create a tailor-made action plan to deliver the solutions you need.


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