scaled agile framework

How the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) can help you to scale your business practices

Reading time: about 7 min


  • Agile and project planning

In the past two decades, many companies have adopted Agile methodologies as a way to keep up with the rapidly changing business world. When implemented correctly, an Agile environment can help you to adapt quickly to emerging technologies and changes in customer demands.

But as businesses grow more prominent and dispersed across multiple time zones, traditional Agile practices might not be enough to help you get the job done. In a large enterprise, projects tend to be larger and more complex, involving multiple teams across multiple organizations. Traditional Agile methodologies don’t scale well in a large enterprise, leading to coordination, communication, and efficiency challenges.

This is where the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) can help. Successful SAFe integration can help your enterprise:

  • Adapt to rapid changes
  • Maintain alignment and collaboration across multiple teams
  • Work more efficiently to improve product quality and customer satisfaction
  • Mitigate risk through iterative development and frequent reviews

What is SAFe? 

Since its introduction in 2011, SAFe has become one of the most popular frameworks for scaling Agile methodologies. It is designed as a simple, lightweight framework that helps companies scale Agile practices and principles such as Scrum, cadence, daily synchronization, continuous improvement, and quality development across large, distributed organizations.

The goal of SAFe is to unify multiple cross-functional groups for better collaboration, increased flexibility, and better alignment of project strategies and goals. SAFe is a structured framework, but it’s also flexible. You can tailor the framework to your organization’s specific needs. This flexibility helps you continuously adapt and scale SAFe to meet your needs as your company grows.

For example, as your company scales, it might acquire a diverse product portfolio with hardware, software, services, etc. To remain agile in an ever-changing market, a SAFe implementation might include:

  • Training for all employees, from top-level executives to individual team members. The idea is to ensure everybody is aligned with SAFe principles and practices.
  • Identifying the value streams. A value stream includes the steps and actions taken in delivering value to a customer from beginning to end.
  • Forming Agile Release Trains (ARTs) for each value stream. These teams work together across the organization to deliver value to customers.
  • Program increment (PI) planning. PI planning sessions break down stories and features into smaller tasks, identify and address dependencies between teams, and prioritize the program backlog based on value and customer needs.
  • Defining and assigning key roles such as Scrum master, product owner, system architect, release train engineer, etc.
  • Reviewing and refining processes and performance after every iteration so you can make adjustments, improve efficiency, and increase value.

10 principles of SAFe

SAFe is built on these guiding principles to help your organization align with Lean-Agile thinking.

1: Take an economic view

All decisions should be made from an economic perspective. Within your approved budget, you should consider the costs associated with delays, manufacturing, operations, development, benefits, risks, etc. This can help you make informed decisions that maximize your value streams and optimize the economic outcome.

2: Apply systems thinking

Systems thinking encourages you to view your entire organization as a system. This will help you to understand the interdependencies between teams, departments, and value streams. While the system might be complex, understanding how each component in the system is interrelated can help you identify and address bottlenecks or other potential problems so you can improve efficiency and productivity.

3: Assume variability and preserve options

Most of us work in rapidly changing environments where variability is the norm. By assuming there will be variables, SAFe encourages you to keep your requirements and design options open. This can help you avoid making decisions prematurely. 

For example, if you get locked into the wrong design option early in development, making adjustments later is more challenging. Keeping your options open lets you make decisions based on the latest information to reduce the risk of developing a poorly designed product.

4: Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles

Break down significant features or solutions into smaller, more manageable pieces that can be developed and delivered incrementally. Providing value in increments allows for faster feedback. You can learn from this fast feedback to quickly adapt to changing requirements or determine where to alter your course to meet customer needs.

5: Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems

This principle encourages you to base milestones on the effectiveness of your work and not on artificial deadlines. You learn from each incremental release whether you are developing what your customers want. The feedback you get from each incremental release helps you evaluate the feasibility, economic benefits, and value of the product you are developing. This data helps you base milestones on achieving business, technological, and economic goals.

6: Make value flow without interruptions

Flow is a smooth, linear, and fast work movement from step to step in a value stream. To keep work flowing, you need to:

  • Visualize and limit the work in progress (WIP): Too much work in the queue can slow down productivity. A visual digital document like a Kanban board or a SAFe program board that is easily accessible by everybody allows your teams and stakeholders to see how much work is being done, is waiting to be done, and has been completed. The work should be balanced against the current capacity to complete the work. Limiting how much work can be added to the “to-do” queue can help teams focus on priorities and goals.
  • Address bottlenecks: Make adjustments as necessary. For example, add more people at the bottleneck step or determine the root cause of the bottleneck and find a solution to improve the process.
  • Minimize handoffs and dependencies: Handing off work to other teams can slow down the flow if the work has to sit while the team addresses dependencies. Create teams and ARTs with the knowledge, resources, and skills to complete an end-to-end value stream. This can help you to avoid handing off work and being too dependent on other teams or individuals.
  • Work in smaller batches: Smaller batches mean the team can finish work more quickly and move on to the next batch. This can help you reduce and manage queue lengths and enhance efficiency.

7: Apply cadence and synchronize with cross-domain planning

Cadence is the regular, predictable rhythm of work. Synchronization ensures that teams align their work to this cadence. Applying cadence and synchronization helps you maintain a familiar rhythm for planning, developing, reviewing, and adapting.

8: Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

SAFe encourages you to recognize that workers are motivated when they have autonomy, mastery, purpose, and minimal constraints in their work. Creating self-governing teams, promoting continuous improvement, and providing purpose to their work can be better motivating factors than individual incentives.

9: Decentralize decision-making

This principle encourages you to let teams and individuals closest to the work make decisions. When the people with the most information and knowledge about what they are working on can make their own decisions, teams solve problems more quickly and increase team responsiveness and adaptability.

10: Organize around value

Organize the entire company around the idea of delivering value to customers. When you focus on delivering value, your teams and divisions will likely align their efforts with strategic goals and customer needs.

What are the benefits of SAFe?

For companies looking to scale Agile practices, SAFe offers several benefits to help improve performance, increase active collaboration, and deliver customer value. Benefits include:

  • Improved business agility: Large organizations can increase flexibility and adaptability when responding to rapid market changes, customer feedback, changing requirements, etc.
  • Faster time-to-market: Breaking down work into smaller pieces lets you regularly release functional incremental products and features to customers. Delivering value in small increments in regular iterations helps you to more quickly meet customer needs.
  • Improved quality: The SAFe practices of continuous integration, automated testing, rapid feedback, and regular inspection of work help you identify and address issues early and quickly. This leads to improved product quality.
  • Increased productivity: With an emphasis on collaboration across the entire organization, teams can coordinate efforts, eliminate unnecessary work, find and remove bottlenecks, reallocate resources as needed, look for ways to continuously improve, and ensure everyone is aligned and working to achieve the desired outcomes.
  • Improved employee engagement: SAFe gives teams more autonomy and ownership. This lets the people with the most knowledge about their work make decisions that move the project forward. Autonomy keeps employees engaged, gives them a sense of purpose, and increases job satisfaction.
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