Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)
Developed by Simon Widmer
The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a framework that helps corporations to adopt the principles of lean and agile project management into a comprehensive operating system allowing large-scale program management for corporations of any size. SAFe combines the power of four bodies of knowledge: Agile development, systems thinking, lean product development, and DevOps. This allows corporations to benefit from cutting down the delivery time of innovative, high-value products and services while increasing predictability and quality. Overall, the most common benefits for corporations implementing SAFe can be quantified as :
- 20 – 50% increase in productivity
- 25 – 75% improvements in quality
- 30 – 75% faster time-to-market
- 10 – 50% increase in employee engagement and job satisfaction
SAFe follows a set of seven core competencies for lean enterprise practices as well as 10 lean-agile principles. Further, the SAFe framework consists of four configurations and is scalable depending on a corporation’s needs, and promotes alignment, collaboration, and delivery across teams of any size working in an agile environment. Further, this article describes a 12-step SAFe implementation roadmap.
SAFe is freely available and developed by Scaled Agile, Inc. which is the originator of the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®). The organization aims to promote the values of innovation, collaboration, and flexibility by continuously further developing the framework and offering educational services including certification courses and consulting . The framework was first released in 2011 and since then continuously developed. The current version 5.1 was released in February 2021. Although recognized as the most commonly implemented framework for scaled agile methods in corporations, the SAFe framework shows several limitations which are further outlined below.
This topic has been touched by previous articles such as SAFe and (Re)Introducing Project Management in a SAFe world. This article offers a more generic overview updated to the most recent release of SAFe 5.1 while emphasizing limitations faced by corporations working with the Scaled Agile Framework.
Core Competencies of SAFe
The latest Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe 5) consists of seven key competencies that are crucial in creating and maintaining a competitive advantage for any corporation :
- Lean-Agile Leadership
- Enabling individuals and teams to leverage their highest potential by advancing and applying Lean-Agile leadership skills which advance and sustain organizational change.
- Team and Technical Agility
- Empowering agile behavior within teams including technical practices such as Built-in Quality, Behavior-Driven Development (BDD), Agile testing, Test-Driven Development (TDD).
- Agile Product Delivery
- “Building high-performing teams-of-teams” with the help of design thinking, customer-centricity allowing a continuous flow of valuable products by applying methods such as DevOps, the Continuous Delivery Pipeline, and Release on Demand.
- Enterprise Solution Delivery
- Developing and sustaining large-scale software applications, networks, and cyber-physical solutions.
- Lean Portfolio Management
- Spearheading lean portfolio management tasks such as the definition of vision and strategy, lean budgets as well as portfolio prioritization and road mapping.
- Organizational Agility
- Applying lean and systems thinking methodologies to align strategy and execution for strategy and investment funding, Agile portfolio operations, and governance.
- Continuous Learning Culture
- Create and sustain a learning organization aimed at continuous improvement and innovation.
Combining some of these seven core competencies provide the building blocks for the four available configurations of SAFe as described in SAFe Configurations:
SAFe Lean-Agile Principles
The following 10 Lean-Agile principles guide practitioners for successful SAFe :
- Take an economic view
- SAFe aims to deliver the best value and quality in the shortest sustainable lead time required. This requires a framework that incrementally delivers value within a proper economic framework. This is enabled by decentralized decision-making to manage trade-offs between risk, Cost of Delay (CoD), manufacturing, operational, and development costs. Additionally, an approved budget and compliance to guardrails must be managed for every development value stream.
- Apply systems thinking
- The importance to ensure that the larger aim of the system is understood by everyone is emphasized. This aims to minimize the risk of locally optimizing components within a complex system while the overall goal of the system may shift out of focus. This systems thinking approach promotes transparency and clarity of the mission for all involved stakeholders.
- Assume variability; preserve options
- SAFe aims to maintain multiple requirements and design options for a longer period in the development cycle allowing potential changes of priorities later on. Additionally, empirical data analysis is applied to determine the optimal design and life cycle practice according to the optimal economic outcome. In contrast to traditional design and life cycle practices, this leaves room for potential changing priorities in a later stage of the project while avoiding excessive time-consuming adjustments and suboptimal long-term design in the early stages.
- Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles
- Incrementally developed solutions in short iterations allow for quick customer feedback loops, minimized risk, and continuously add value for the customer. As the "system always runs", incremental developments serve as prototypes, for market testing and product validation or to help identify the need to pivot.
- Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems
- Following Lean-Agile development practices, the solution is evaluated throughout the development life cycle by integration points. These regular evaluations ensure that the developed solution provides the targeted (financial) return at the end of the project. This deviates from a more classic phase-gate-development model.
- Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths
- A key principle of lean enterprises ensures a state of continuous flow ensuring new systems to quickly move "from concept to cash". In order to enable continuous flow, it is crucial to visualize and limit the work in process (WIP) to increase throughput and limit capacity issues. Additionally, it is recommended to reduce the batch size to smaller pieces. Finally, the queue length is to be managed to reduce waiting time for new features.
- Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning
- Cadence enables a synchronized rhythm for the development process and increases the overall project predictability. Synchronization supports multiple perspectives to be understood, solved and integrated simultaneously leading to an efficient development atmosphere.
- Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers
- Lean-Agile leaders aim to leverage the intrinsic motivation of employees leading to better outcomes for individuals, customers, and the corporation. This is enabled by fostering an atmosphere of autonomy and purpose, minimizing constraints, mutual influence, and better understanding the role of compensation. This is in contrast to the classical approach assuming that employee engagement is primarily driven by an individual's level of compensation.
- Decentralize decision-making
- While fast value delivery requires decentralized decision-making within the development team, some strategic and global, and economically impactful decisions justify more centralized decision-making by managers. In order to empower employees and ensure a continuous flow of value, it is crucial to create a decision-framework balancing between centralized and decentralized decision-making.
- Organize around value
- Business Agility requires that organizations are formed to maximize value creation and minimize delivery time. This also requires the ability for quick and seamless reorganization when customer demands change. The classical approach of organizing corporations around functional expertise is outdated and does not sufficiently support the value creation and speed needed to operate in competitive markets.
SAFe is a scaleable framework and provides four out-of-the-box configurations depending on the needs of an organization's development environment based on a combination of the seven SAFe core competencies. The configurations are described in more detail in the following subsection :
- Essential SAFe
- This configuration builds the starting point for all SAFe configurations providing the most simple starting point for implementation. If an organization would like to start SAFe on a smaller scale, this configuration is recommended. Essential SAFe includes the first three of seven core competencies of SAFe including Lean-Agile Leadership, Team and Technical Agility, and Agile Product Delivery competencies. A crucial organizational structure builds the Agile Release Train (ART), which makes sure that Agile teams and key stakeholders are streamlined to deliver the targeted solution mission.
- Large Solution SAFe
- Building on top of Essential SAFe, this configuration is intended for more complex and large-scale projects by including the fourth SAFe core competency Enterprise Solution Delivery on top of the Essential SAFe configuration. If an organization intends to coordinate and synchronize projects across multiple programs and teams, this configuration is recommended. Large Solution SAFe is not developed to consider any portfolio management considerations. Examples may include large projects as typically found in industries such as aerospace and defense, automotive, and government industries, which focus on large solutions but not portfolio governance.
- Portfolio SAFe
- Portfolio SAFe is designed for managing strategic direction, investment funding, and lean governance of projects. If an organization intends to optimize its portfolio management, this configuration provides the necessary tools. These competencies are covered by adding two additional SAFe core competencies including Organizational Agility and Lean Portfolio Management on top of the Essential SAFe framework.
- Full SAFe
- The last configuration combines all the above described SAFe configurations. This framework is the most complex configuration and is recommended to be chosen for large corporations. Full SAFe combines the strengths of all seven core competencies of SAFe.
The following 12-step implementation roadmap provides a comprehensive guideline for implementing any of the four available SAFe configurations :
- Reaching the Tipping Point
- The initial phase of implementing SAFe refers to the point for an organization to overcome the resistance to change, which is also referred to as "reaching the tipping point" . The need is primarily driven by two factors:
- Reactive change: a company realizes that it is outperformed by the competition, therefore the organization needs to adapt its way of conducting business.
- Proactive change: The need for change is triggered by visionary leaders who proactively initiate change aiming to continuously improve the business perspective and competitiveness of an organization.
- Train Lean-Agile Change Agents
- After recognizing the need for change by reaching the tipping point, a vision for conducting the change must be established. As a next step, it is crucial to conduct user training within the organization to create a "Powerful Coalition", which describes a group of SAFe experts throughout the ranks of the company. This process of user training is spearheaded by Lean-Agile Change Agents who serve as the first line of SAFe change drivers.
- Train Executives, Managers, and Leaders
- Managers sponsor the change and support the implementation of SAFe and strong leadership is required to successfully implement any change initiative of an organization. Therefore, the second critical move is to train the organization's leadership to help drive the SAFe implementation. This user segment is trained by Lean-Agile Change Agents as described in the previous step.
- Create a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence
- The third powerful training step includes creating a center of excellence consisting of the trained Lean-Agile Change Agents and leaders which helps to change the behavior and culture of a large development organization. Creating a group of SAFe experts helps a corporation accelerate the change's progress. With the help of a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence, the group of experts continuously measures the change progress, helps to continuously drive the organization's incremental transformation.
- Identify Value Streams and ARTs
- Once the organization and its employees have received SAFe training, the next step tackles the implementation of SAFe and describes how organizations identify value streams and design the Agile Release Trains. These crucial steps build the base structure for driving the successful SAFe transformation. A prerequisite for identifying Value Streams and Agile Release Trains (ARTs) is a clear understanding of the new organizational model. The goal is to create an organizational model which allows the flow of value across functional silos, activities, and boundaries. The following subsection provides a more detailed overview regarding value streams and Agile Release Trains:
- Value streams describe a sequence of steps to create value. This covers the steps starting from concept to the delivery of the final result to the customer. Value streams can be classified into two types:
- Operational Value Streams include steps and the people who deliver value to the end-user using the business solutions created by the development value streams.
- Development Value Streams describes the steps and the people who develop the business solutions used by operational value streams. This includes value streams that are managed by the SAFe portfolio.
- Agile Release Trains (ARTs) describe the team of employees that realize the value. Depending on the complexity of the developed product, the value streams are developed by one or multiple ARTs working in parallel. These teams usually include between 50 to 150 people.
- Create the Implementation Plan
- Following the Agile principle, the overall goal lies in continuously providing value for the customer. Accordingly, the initial implementation plan is recommended to be of a smaller scale by selecting a single value stream to be developed by a single ART. This incremental approach to implementation reduces the initial planning time and allows it to develop in smaller circles instead of creating a very detailed, long-term execution plan.
- Prepare for ART Launch
- From a change-management perspective, creating an implementation plan and launching the first ART is crucially important. This will generate the initial short-term wins that help the organization to build momentum and drive for the further implementation process. In the next step, the implementation plan is refined by defining a launch date and a program calendar. This helps to create a plan for a longer timeframe. ARTs operate by fixed cadence cycles known as Program Increment (PI) which can be limited to a recommended duration of eight to twelve weeks. Each PI is initially planned by a PI planning session. Once this program calendar is scheduled, teams are reorganized into Agile teams and include a set of roles such as a Scrum Master, a Product Owner as well as the team that directly create the value. At this point, it should be made sure that Scrum Masters, Product Owners, and team managers received SAFe training. Additionally, the overall launch readiness of the team is evaluated. Next, the scope of the Program is formalized with the help of the program backlog. This includes a description of high-value features that are to be developed, non-functional requirements, and the architectural framework that influences the behavior of the system in the future.
- Train Teams and Launch the ART
- Once the ART Launch is defined, Agile and SAFe training is provided for all untrained team members. This allows launching the ART. In the next step, each development team creates the Team Backlog which is assigned the responsibility of features and requirements. Following, the first PI planning session is conducted and the ART is launched.
- Coach ART Execution
- In the next step, team-level and ART-level coaching are provided by Lean-Agile leaders to enable relentless improvement within the teams. This especially supports the delivery of value in the shortest sustainable time and assuring the development of high-quality features and services.
- Launch More ARTs and Value Streams
- This stage intends to accelerate the pace of development by the ARTs. More business opportunities can be tackled by consolidating gains and creating more sustainable change within the organization. This allows the corporation to launch more ARTs and connect additional value streams. This helps the organization to increase the speed of change and value creation of SAFe within the corporation.
- Extend to the Portfolio
- At this point, SAFe has been implemented across the development value streams and enabled measurable benefits in time-to-market, quality, productivity, and employee engagement. To take full advantage of SAFe's transformational drive and continue to create value for the organization, the benefits of SAFe may be expanded towards the corporations’ Lean Portfolio Management competency.
- The last step of the SAFe implementation roadmap addresses the acceleration of an organization's business agility. It is essential to continuously improve the application of SAFe. To allow a steady improvement of the SAFe practices, metrics should be introduced that measure the team's performance. Additionally, value streams and ARTs may be reorganized to allow improved delivery of value to the customer. Alongside these improvement strategies, it is recommended to continue providing training and coaching to the development team and leadership.
Limitations and challenges for successful SAFe application at an organization can be classified into two categories:
Firstly, implementing SAFe requires a relatively high effort of initial training and continued coaching within the organization which results in a high financial investment .
Secondly, the Scaled Agile framework is limited in terms of requiring a high level of oversight and leadership to enable a smooth operation of SAFe . In a critical literature review of scaled agile processes, Kadenic & Tambo (2021) find issues such as high implementation complexity, re-made bureaucracy, a lack of team-centricity, and (top) management insights could influence the quality of the project work. Additionally, these factors are often accompanied by skepticism towards agile development and a lack of management commitment which may create roadblocks towards the SAFe framework within a corporation. This is supported by Sinha, Shameem & Kumar (2020) who also emphasize the increased administration effort required in running SAFe .
The Standard for Program Management — Fourth Edition. (2017). Project Management Institute.
This book is delivered by the PMI Project Management Institute serves as the foundational standard literature providing a “definitive guide for individuals and organizations seeking to mature their program management practices”. In connection to Scaled Agile Framework for enterprises, especially chapter 8.2 is of interest as it introduces program delivery activities. This section is especially helpful for understanding the key differences between classic phase-gate model approaches and agile methods such as SAFe. This book builds the foundational know-how required by any leader involved in program management, whether in classic program management of SAFe.
SAFe Implementation Roadmap, Scaled Agile, Inc., February 2021, https://www.scaledagileframework.com/implementation-roadmap/
The SAFe implementation roadmap is an article created by Scaled Agile, Inc and consists of a set of 12 articles providing a comprehensive guideline for the 12-step implementation plan for SAFe. Additionally, this article is accompanied by a graphic that summarizes the necessary steps for SAFe implementation and helps a quick reader in the form of a map.
Sinha, R., Shameem, M., & Kumar, C. (2020). SWOT: Strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for scaling agile methods in global software development. Acm International Conference Proceeding Series, 3385037. https://doi.org/10.1145/3385032.3385037
Sinha, Shameem & Kumar (2020) provide a critical literature review on agile software development and how to scale such agile initiatives in organizations. A total of 20 primary studies were selected in which 13 success factors and 11 limiting factors for scaling agile initiatives were identified. The insights are presented in the form of a SWOT analysis which is especially helpful to get a quick overview of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in scaling agile methods for organizations. A limitation of this article is the focus primary focus on the software development industry. The article does not fully allow to generalization of the SWOT insights for applications of scaled agile methods in industries.
© Scaled Agile Framework and SAFe are registered trademarks of Scaled Agile, Inc.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 Welcome to Scaled Agile Framework, Scaled Agile, Inc., February 2021, https://www.scaledagileframework.com/about/
- ↑ About Scaled Agile, Scaled Agile, Inc., February 2021, https://scaledagile.com/about-scaled-agile/
- ↑ SAFe Lean-Agile Principles, Scaled Agile, Inc., February 2021, https://www.scaledagileframework.com/safe-lean-agile-principles/?_ga=2.238776256.1981272952.1644603907-13032861.1644603907/
- ↑ SAFe Configurations for Lean Enterprises, Scaled Agile, Inc., February 2021, https://www.scaledagileframework.com/safe-for-lean-enterprises/
- ↑ SAFe Implementation Roadmap, Scaled Agile, Inc., February 2021, https://www.scaledagileframework.com/implementation-roadmap/
- ↑ Gladwell, M. (2006). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Little, Brown.
- ↑ Dikert, K., Paasivaara, M., & Lassenius, C. (2016). Challenges and success factors for large-scale agile transformations: A systematic literature review. Journal of Systems and Software, 119, 87–108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jss.2016.06.013/
- ↑ Kadenic, M. D., & Tambo, T. (2021). Reinstitutionalization of Project Management Offices by Large-Scale Agile Frameworks. Journal of Modern Project Management, 9(1), 86–101.
- ↑ Sinha, R., Shameem, M., & Kumar, C. (2020). SWOT: Strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for scaling agile methods in global software development. Acm International Conference Proceeding Series, 3385037. https://doi.org/10.1145/3385032.3385037