What is SAFe? A framework for scaling business agility

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) explained

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 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, as well as deliverables that reach the market faster.

Key elements of SAFe: Value streams and agile release trains

At the core of any successful SAFe implementation are value streams and agile release trains (ARTs). Value streams refer to the set of processes by which an organization creates value for its customers, which can be internal users or external consumers or clients. These process flows are broken down into sequences of activities necessary to transform a business concept into a valued digital solution. An ART is a team comprised of agile teams that, along with stakeholders, develop one or more solutions in a value stream.

The Scaled Agile Framework operates at four levels, depending on an organization’s size and SAFe maturity. At the Team Level, an organization may have a number of teams working in an agile fashion toward a particular goal or solution. At the Program Level, an organization will have implemented an ART, which typically comprises 50 to 125 team members split into sub-teams that work in a synchronized manner to deliver value. The third level, Large Solution Level, involves two or more ARTs coordinated as a solution train. At the highest level, aka Portfolio Level, the entire business operates using agile methodologies to govern its portfolio of solutions, including how it goes about strategizing and investing in its operations.

SAFe principles

SAFe is built on 10 key principles derived from existing Lean and agile principles:

Take an economic view to allow for optimal lead time while providing the best quality and value.

Apply systems thinking into all facets of development.

Assume market and technical variability by preserving choices and encouraging innovation.

Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles that facilitate customer feedback and reduce risks.

Base milestones on objective estimation and evaluation of working systems to ensure there is an economic benefit.

Make value flow without interruptions by limiting the amount of work in progress, decreasing batch sizes, and managing queue lengths to enable continuous flow.

Apply cadence (timing), synchronize with cross-domain formation to recognize business opportunities and allow for corrective action as needed.

Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers to reach their unseen potential.

Decentralize decision-making to become more agile and effective.

Organize around value to ensure development responds to the needs of customers, providing them with new and innovative solutions.

SAFe core competencies

The Scaled Agile Framework is built around seven core competencies. Together these competencies offer the knowledge and skills to enable large organizations to achieve business agility.

Team and technical agility: High-performing, cross-functional teams that share a common goal of creating high-quality, well-designed solutions are vital for SAFe success.

Agile product delivery: SAFe organizations must adopt a customer-centric approach to delivering valuable products and services to end users. Here, design thinking and a commitment to continuous delivery and release on demand are essential.

Enterprise solution delivery: In evolving large enterprise solutions, SAFe organizations apply Lean agile practices and treat solutions as “living systems” that are continually developed over time. Doing so requires sophisticated coordination of ARTs and value streams.

Lean portfolio management: By applying Lean and systems thinking, SAFe organizations ensure their entire portfolio is aligned and funded to deliver strategic value. This requires strong coordination of decentralized activities as well as governance around spending, compliance, and metrics.

Organizational agility: SAFe organizations’ team members apply Lean principles to business operations as well, as a means for continually improving how they go about development valued solutions from their customers.

Continuous learning culture: SAFe organizations continually encourage team members to increase their knowledge and competence with a goal of establishing an innovation-minded organization driven toward relentless improvement.

Lean-agile leadership: SAFe organization leadership leads by example and create an environment prepared for continual transformation.  

SAFe vs. Scrum

SAFe and Scrum are both agile methodologies to solution development. Whereas Scrum is a framework for individual teams, SAFe is aimed at scaling agile principles across large organizations. In fact, SAFe incorporates much of Scrum into its framework, just at scale.

For example, whereas Scrum emphasizes daily standup meetings and incremental development sprints, SAFe goes a step further by also implementing program increments, which Scaled Agile, the SAFe framework’s provider, defines as “a timebox during which an agile release train (ART) delivers incremental value in the form of working, tested software and systems.” Further, Scrum’s primary roles of product owner, Scrum master, and development team member are expanded under SAFe to include roles such as release train engineer and solution train engineer, among others.

Overall, while Scrum is best suited for individual teams or a small number of related teams, SAFe is designed for large enterprises, spanning multiple teams and projects, while providing a broader scope for driving agile at scale.

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.

For a deeper comparison of these and other scaling agile frameworks, see “SAFe vs. LeSS vs. DAD vs. LeadingAgile: Comparing scaling agile frameworks.”

Making the shift to SAFe

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.

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.

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.

Get executives and managers on board: Executives must also be trained so they can model behavior around the same Lean agile views and practices.

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.

Identify value streams and 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

SAFe certification

SAFe certifications are becoming valuable when hiring people with demonstrable skills and knowledge. The Scaled Agile Academy offers a range of SAFe certifications based on role:

Certified SAFe Agilist

Certified SAFe Product Owner/Product Manager

Certified SAFe Scrum Master

Certified SAFe Lean Portfolio Manager

Certified SAFe Practitioner

Certified SAFe Release Train Engineer

Certified SAFe Advanced Scrum Master

Certified SAFe DevOps Practitioner

Certified SAFe Architect

Certified SAFe Agile Product Manager

SAFe Practice Consultant

SAFe training

There are many options for SAFe training, especially online such as free podcasts by PM PodcastScaled AgileLearning TreeSimplilearnAgilest, and LinkedIn. There are many options out there, so it’s important to do your due diligence before selecting the right SAFe Agile trainer. Take a close look at each trainer and training to ensure it will meet your goals.

Agile Development, IT Governance Frameworks, IT Leadership, Project Management