SAFe: The fundamentals of Scaled Agile Framework

Posted by KMS Solutions on Nov 18, 2021 2:25:36 AM

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According to KPMG Global Agile Survey of 2019, SAFe was the most commonly used framework for scaling Agile among participants in 17 countries. Nowadays, SAFe is the most popular and trusted framework for agile. It is leveraged by agile teams across the world to work smarter and build better software.

In this article, let’s explore all the essentials of SAFe.

Table of Contents

  1. What is SAFe
  2. SAFe's Core Values
  3. SAFe's Core Principles
  4. How SAFe works
  5. The benefits of SAFe
  6. Is SAFe right for your team?

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What is SAFe

What is Scaled Agile Framework? The Scaled Agile Framework® (or SAFe® for short) is a system for scaling agile across an enterprise. As a comprehensive framework, SAFe offers guidelines and principles on key roles and their responsibilities, the workflow and patterns, as well as the values that should never be compromised. 

Agile software development, lean product development, and systems thinking are the 3 sets of knowledge that SAFe provides.

SAFe was created in 2021 by Dean Leffingwell and Drew Jemilo, who are2 pioneers in Agile. Back then, enterprises still were using traditional waterfall methods for software development. But as the need for more software in shorter time frames became paramount, SAFe was born.

SAFe is hardly a one-size-fits-all approach. As enterprises grow, there are four levels of SAFe to accommodate their size: Essential SAFe, Large Solution SAFe, Portfolio SAFe, and Full SAFe. 

SAFe Core Values

SAFe’s core values describe an agile culture that leadership and team members need to foster and how teams should work to use SAFe correctly.

#1 - Alignment 

SAFe aligns everyone on the same page. They have the same and transparent understanding of the enterprise, the goals, and the directions to achieve those goals. To reach this level of alignment, SAFe requires regular synchronization of activities and people.

Alignment in SAFe does not mean top-down control. Alignment happens when everyone is working toward the same goal, where empowerment, autonomy, and decentralized decision-making are promoted.

#2 - Built-in Quality

It’s not uncommon for enterprises to make do by inspecting quality only after the product is done. This is the opposite to built-in quality. You cannot just force quality into a product now that it’s finished.

In SAFe, Definition of Done (DoD) must be clearly defined for every step and iteration; and quality standards are built into the development cycle, hence the term built-in quality. This is especially important for large-scale systems, where untested baches can pile up really fast.

SAFe is built around 5 categories of built-in quality: flow, architecture and design quality, code quality, system quality, and release quality.

#3 - Transparency

Transparency is key to timely and informed decision-making. Moreover, it helps to build an open environment for communication, which is key to Agile and Lean.

SAFe encourages teams to build trust, where they work in smaller batch sizes to identify problems sooner, ensure full visibility into teams' backlog, and define the right goals

#4 - Program execution

The last core value of SAFe is program execution. Stemming from agile manifesto, it requires that working software is more important than exhaustive documentation. All the three core values that we have discussed so far, alignment, built-in quality, and transparency, are only to make program execution easier. Why? Your enterprise can be super transparent and aligned, but that only won’t help unless you can deliver real work.

SAFe Principles

These 10 principles guide decision-making for not just leaders and managers, but also everyone in the enterprise. They also encourage them to shift from traditional waterfall thinking to lean-agile thinking.

1. Take an economic view

Everything in SAFe must make economical sense. The SAFe framework requires teams to deliver early and often, and take an economic view to avoid delays, reduce lead time, and cut costs in the process.

This principle is inspired much from Donald Reinertsen’s best selling “Principles of product development flow”. According to the book, each individual in the decision-making chain must understand how delays economically impact the enterprise to achieve the shortest sustainable lead-time.  Delivering early and often isn’t always enough. In SAFe, it’s the shared responsibility of everyone to sequence jobs for maximum benefit, understand economic trade-offs, and operate within lean budgets.

2. Apply systems thinking

There are 3 areas that SAFe practitioners apply systems thinking to: the solution, the enterprise building it, and the value streams.

Solutions are the products, services, or systems you are building. If you are developing large solutions with interconnected components, each team member must understand how their part fits into the bigger picture. 

When it comes to the enterprise building the solution, you should consider the people, management, and processes. If optimizing people’s output is one of your goals, you should break down silos, encourage cross-functional teams, and create new working agreements with suppliers and clients.

Finally, value stream is about how values stream from raw concept to profits. This can be done with the development value streams (DVS). 

3. Assume variability and preserve options

Building systems are full of uncertainties, especially in today’s fast-moving landscape. SAFe does not avoid uncertainties, but offers ways to effectively manage them.

SAFe introduces set-based design, which retains a wide range of design options for as long as possible during the development cycle. Set-based design helps inform decision-making during times of uncertainty by identifying multiple options and their expected outcomes, like a strategic bet. 

In set-based design, “learning milestones”, which is a deadline for a decision, is vital. The more teams improve over time, the more choices they can discard. The more choices they eliminate, the easier it is to identify the best path forward and produce the best possible outcome for the product at hand.

4. Build incrementally with fast integrated learning cycles

Similar to Principle #3, this principle aims to resolve uncertainties with a range of design options instead of just one. It is recommended that your solution is built in increments, where each timeboxed period is improved upon the previous one.

5. Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems

An actual working system is always better for demonstration than even the most detailed documents or superficial evaluation of success. When teams use a working system as a model, they can make better decisions and plan their milestones accordingly. Milestone examples include design, development, and testing. Stakeholders are required to regularly input new insights to ensure strong potential for ROI.

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

Limiting work in process is a great way for stakeholders to see how work is done.

The three elements of this principes: Visualize and limit Work in Process (WIP), reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths are methods for maximizing throughput and accelerating value delivery - or in other words, implementing “flow”. 

In SAFe, this means limiting the overlapping work (by using Kanban boards), the complexity of each work (by separating tasks into small batches), and the total amount of work processed at a given time (by increasing the processing rate). 

7. Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning

In SAFe, it is necessary to apply cadence through sprints and iterations. When cadences are created for all matters, it becomes easier to minimize complexity, manage uncertainty, develop muscle memory, enforce quality, and encourage collaboration. And when you synchronize these cadences, people will work and activities will happen as they should, where new information stimulates decision-making and incremental planning.

8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge worker

This principle is inspired by influential management consultant Peter Drucker and author Daniel Pink. It helps unlock the potential of teams and allows leadership to coach and serve their teams, instead of the command-and-control mindset. Leadership is key to this principle, whose job is to motivate workers, listen to them and provide continuous feedback, and encourage teams with the autonomy to do their work.

9. Decentralize decision making

To enable teams with the autonomy to do their work, SAFe encourages reducing queue lengths and taking an economic approach by decentralizing decision-making. However, leaders should reserve their authority on matters of strategic importance and allow teams to make decisions on everything else.

10. Organize around value

With the organizational patterns offered by SAFe, enterprises can proactively produce viable deliverables and adapt to changing customer demands. Organizing around value allows you to add structure to the Agile environment and enhance value delivery.

How does SAFe Work?

To prepare for SAFe, an enterprise must have executive-level sponsorship, a purpose for SAFe itself, and a Scrum foundation.

Scaled Agile, Inc and its partners such as KMS Solutions are the ones to reach out for if you seek advice on SAFe, how to get started with SAFe, and how to set your enterprise up for adopting SAFe.

The 12 steps for implementing SAFe include:

  1. Reaching the tipping point
  2. Train lean-agile change agents
  3. Train executives, managers, and leaders
  4. Create a lean-agile center of excellence
  5. Identify value streams and ARTs (Agile Release Trains)
  6. Create the implementation plan
  7. Prepare for ART launch
  8. Train teams and launch the ART
  9. Coach the ART execution
  10. Launch more ARTs and value streams
  11. Extend to the portfolio
  12. Sustain and improve

Benefits of SAFe

Scaled Agile Framework’s huge knowledge hub, guidelines, and principles can offer numerous benefits for Agile teams. The 4 major benefits are: greater alignment, high-quality products, boosted transparency, and successful execution. 

Other benefits include:

  • Better engagement: SAFe encourages collaboration between team members.
  • Simplified structure: SAFe offers clear definitions and boundaries, which gives a sense of open and transparent structure.
  • Faster time to market: SAFe optimizes value flow, which shortens lead time and accelerates product delivery.

The benefits of SAFe have been proven. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right for you.

Is SAFe right for your team?

The Scaled Agile Framework is better-suited for large-scale projects. It’s ideal for enterprises that seek to scale Agile practices across their teams, portfolios, and programs.

Another case is when you have tried to scale Agile, but it didn’t work, maybe because of the lack of uniformity, alignment, or consistency. SAFe can help you with its comprehensive roadmap and strategies.

Also, SAFe can work for enterprises unfamiliar with Agile, those who are unsure about the values, principles, and various management roles involved. The prescribed framework of SAFe can help you to structure your teams and ease them into the Agile methodology.

Recently, KMS Solutions has partnered with Scaled Agile to introduce SAFe training program to Vietnam. You can read the covered story here. Or contact KMS Solutions to see how we can help you embrace SAFe. 

Scaled Agile Training Services

Topics: Software Development