SAFe®, A Framework For Scaling Agile In Large Organizations

How Agile Got Started

We’ve all heard the story of the 17 developers who met at a ski resort in Utah and created the Agile Manifesto in 2001. By then, Agile was already part of the software engineering culture, but under different names.

Scrum, developed in 1995, quickly became one of the most widely used agile practices, alone, or in combination with Kanban or Dynamic Systems Development.

For companies with a forward-thinking mindset, Agile was a game-changer, shortening deadlines, delays, and making overall work processes more efficient.

The Agile framework was successful (in part) because it defined a new set of values and practices:

  • Individuals and interaction over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiations
  • Responding to change over following a plan
    These principles, however, weren’t always easy to apply.

Agile Issues

The Agile framework defines a high-level approach that has been later implemented by several methodologies based on such principles. In practice, though, most frameworks focus only on specific aspects of a company workflow, so there is no one-size-fits-all.

When choosing which frameworks to adopt, companies usually consider their structure, the size of their teams, and the complexity of the solutions they’re working on. The struggle comes from the fact that most guidance provided by Agile is easy to apply to single, small-sized teams, but unclear at best when it comes to larger organizations and enterprises. So over time, companies adapted and customized the various frameworks to their own needs, which added to the confusion.

The Scaled Agile Framework®

The Scaled Agile Framework®, born in 2011, was born to solve part of these issues, by implementing agile practices for larger scale companies. It integrates Lean, Agile, and DevOps practices and focuses on 7 core competencies:

1) Team and technical agility
Each Agile team is made of 5- to 11 members who work on a product through iterations using Scrum or Kanban. The team is led by a Product Manager who represents the customer.

At the end of each iteration, the team goes through an interactive review and retrospective. A Scrum Master is there to facilitate the entire process and provide coaching.

©Scaled Agile, Inc.
Within a lean enterprise, there are obviously several smaller agile teams that need to closely collaborate and work towards a common goal. In SAFe®, a team made of several agile teams is called an ART – an Agile Release Train. ARTs can have between 50 to 125 people and are self-organized and cross-functional.

The ART teams design products that are Viable, Feasible, Desirable, and Sustainable, using design thinking and a customer-centric approach and use DevOps practices to continuously test and improve their product.

2) Agile Product Delivery
ARTs follow Agile product delivery principles to work on a product. A cycle normally includes 5 iterations and is known as PI – Program Increment.

3) Enterprise solution delivery
Enterprise solution delivery comes into play when a single ART is not enough to build a complex solution so a solution train is necessary. A solution train includes several ARTs plus suppliers.

4) The Lean Portfolio Management
The Lean Portfolio Management competency ensures that strategy is aligned with execution, and that product development follows the company’s business strategy.

5) Organizational Agility
Organizational Agility is closely related to the previous competency. It provides Lean Portfolio Management the agility to carry out their strategy and stay on track from an operational perspective.

6) Continuous Learning Culture
Continuous Learning Culture is what fosters innovation, education, and exchange of knowledge that lead to continuous improvement and creativity.

7) Lean-Agile Leadership
None of this can be accomplished in silos, at department or business unit level only, or without a proper company culture built on Lean-Agile values and principles.
A Lean-Agile Leadership that can guide the entire company towards this new way of working is paramount.

The SAFe® Core Values

These competencies are based on four core values, more focused on the needs of larger organizations:

  • Alignment means all teams working towards the same goal while everything is organized at a portfolio level.
  • Built-In Quality means quality has to be a priority in every step of the product development: Flow, Architecture and Design Quality, Code Quality, System Quality, and Release Quality.
  • Transparency is actually one of the pillars of Agile. Transparency means trust and healthy relationships within the company, at all times, even when things go south.
  • Program Execution means creating and delivering working software is more important than comprehensive documentation
    ###Value-driven Outcome
    SAFe® is essentially a framework that allows you to scale Agile. It helps enterprises work efficiently and better adapt to change.

SAFe® is currently adopted by 70% of the Fortune100 companies. Typical improvements include:

  • 35% increase in productivity

  • 50% defect reduction

  • 50% faster time to market

  • 30% increase in employee engagement and job satisfaction
    SAFe® can provide value in two major areas:

  • Aligning your IT department with business priorities: SAFe® can help you establish priorities and stay focused on them by educating the leadership and also improving collaboration between departments.

  • Digitalizing the company– SAFe® can provide the framework and the training necessary to manage such a complex project that involves many decision-makers, long delivery cycles, constant redesigning and changing requirements.

SAFe® is based on design thinking

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative practice used as part of the product design phase in the SAFe® framework.

Instead of thinking about a product in terms of features and capabilities to develop, design thinking takes a step back and looks at the product as the solution to a problem. What is the problem the customer has to solve?

With that in mind, It then uses personas, empathy maps, customer journey maps, and other tools to guide each step of the process and ensure that the solution built is desirable, viable, feasible, and sustainable.

SAFe® vs Scrum

Since Scrum is such a popular framework, many will probably wonder what the difference is between the two. It is pretty straightforward.

Scrum is a team-centered framework, created for small teams and businesses. And very easy to customize. SAFe® on the other hand requires more planning but is made to handle larger teams.

There is, of course, a lot of common ground as both are founded on Agile principles. But the main difference is that Scrum is a software engineering methodology, whereas SAFe® is a business operating system that can include several methodologies like Scrum, or Kanban.

Final Remarks

SAFe® is a good fit for enterprises and teams working on complex systems. It makes the process leaner while also improving the quality of the software produced. The entire knowledge base of SAFe® is available for free. And if you are interested, you can also get help to build your implementation roadmap.

However, having a working framework is not enough. The real value comes from adapting your company culture, from having people implementing and actually using it, and from the leadership acknowledging the issues and fully committing to solving them. See how development analytics like Waydev can help you gain visibility into your team’s work, so you can fully understand where your help is most needed.

Everything starts with a value-driven mindset, and a value-driven mindset requires a data-driven mindset. Having data to rely on will help you understand the processes, see your teams’ progress, and roadblocks and make better, informed decisions.