Scaled Agile Framework: What Is It And How Do You Use It?

Scaled Agile Framework®, also known as SAFe®, is an enterprise-scale development methodology, developed by Scaled Agile, Inc. SAFe combines Lean and Agile principles within a templated framework. Proponents of SAFe claim that it provides a significant increase in employee engagement, increased productivity, faster times to market, and overall higher quality.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into what, exactly, SAFe is, how it is typically implemented, and both the advantages and disadvantages of using the scaled agile framework methodology throughout the software development life cycle. Let’s get to it!

Some more specific takes on SDLC include:

Rapid Application Development Test-Driven Development Waterfall Model
Iterative Model Extreme Programming Software Development Life Cycle
Agile Model Scrum Rational Unified Process
Big Bang Model V-Model Conceptual Model
Kaizen Model Kanban Model Spiral Model

What is Scaled Agile Framework?

For a visual overview of SAFe, the flowchart on the SAFe homepage is a great tool. Yet, to really understand how SAFe works, we need to dig a bit more into some of the fundamental components.

SAFe heavily relies on the core principles of Lean and Agile, which it adapts to form the nine SAFe Lean-Agile Principles:

  1. Take an economic view: Delivering the best value and quality to people and society in the sustainably shortest lead time requires a fundamental understanding of the economics of the system builder’s mission.
  2. Apply systems thinking: In SAFe, systems thinking is applied to the organization that builds the system, as well as the system under development, and further, how that system operates in its end user environment.
  3. Assume variability; preserve options: Lean systems developers maintain multiple requirements and design options for a longer period in the development cycle. Empirical data is then used to narrow focus, resulting in a design that creates better economic outcomes.
  4. Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles: Increments provide the opportunity for fast customer feedback and risk mitigation, and also serve as minimum viable solutions or prototypes for market testing and validation.
  5. Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems: In Lean-Agile development, each integration point provides an objective milestone to evaluate the solution, frequently and throughout the development life cycle. This objective evaluation assures that a continuing investment will produce a commensurate return.
  6. Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths: Three primary keys to implementing flow are to: 1) Visualize and limit the amount of work-in-process so as to limit demand to actual capacity, 2) Reduce the batch sizes of work items to facilitate reliable flow though the system, and 3) Manage queue lengths so as to reduce the wait times for new capabilities.
  7. Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning: Cadence transforms unpredictable events into predictable ones, and provides a rhythm for development. Synchronization causes multiple perspectives to be understood, resolved and integrated at the same time.
  8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers: Providing autonomy, mission and purpose, and minimizing constraints, leads to higher levels of employee engagement, and results in better outcomes for customers and the enterprise.
  9. Decentralize decision-making: Decentralized decision-making reduces delays, improves product development flow and enables faster feedback and more innovative solutions. However, some decisions are strategic, global in nature, and have economies of scale sufficient enough to warrant centralized decision-making.

Scaled agile framework attempts to incorporate the various lessons from Lean and Agile methodologies into the basic principles, which are then used to bring substantial improvements to time to market, employee engagement, quality, and productivity.

Agile Release Trains

An Agile Release Train, or ART, is a fundamental concept within the scaled agile framework. The ART is the primary value delivery method of SAFe. Agile Teams are a small group of individuals focused on defining, building, and testing solutions within a short time frame. An ART is a self-organizing, long-lived group of Agile Teams (a team of teams, if you will), whose purpose is to plan, commit, and execute solutions together. Built around the organization’s core Value Streams, an Agile Release Train exists solely to deliver on promised value by building beneficial solutions for the customer.

Using tools like a common Vision, Roadmap, and Program Backlog, and ART aims to complete goals within a specific period of time, known in SAFe as Program Increments (e.g. a 10 week period).

Program Level

Program Level is another key concept within SAFe. Simply put, the Program Level is where development teams and other resources are applied to an important, ongoing development mission. Most Program Levels — such as teams, roles, and activities — revolve around a specific ART, ensuring a constant flow of incremental, value-generating releases.

There are two other Levels (Portfolio and Team) within SAFe, which we’ll discuss in a later section.

Core Values

SAFe focuses on four fundamental, core values:

  • Alignment: Fundamentally, global focus is more valuable than local focus. Individuals on a SAFe team should value the team’s goals above personal tasks and responsibilities. Extending off that, members of Agile Release Trains should emphasize vision and program objectives over team goals. ARTs should focus on Value Stream objectives over ART objectives. Value Streams focus on value contributions toward the business portfolio. Finally, Management should focus on establishing a mission, but should do so with as few constraints as possible.
  • Built-in Quality: SAFe contains a number of built-in quality practices to help ensure that every element, within each incremental build, is up to the same high standard of quality.
  • Transparency: Large-scale development is a challenge. Transparency establishes trust throughout the project by sharing facts and progress openly across all levels. This extra level of trust enables decentralized decision-making and additional employee empowerment.
  • Program Execution: Each Agile Release Train should predictably generate value. The Program Level within SAFe provides responsibilities and guidance to various member roles within ARTs, to assist with the generation of value.

SAFe Implementation

Given the sheer size and scope of SAFe, proper implementation can be rather daunting, especially starting out. Since a full explanation of SAFe implementation would require tens of thousands of words — and because more detailed information is available on the official website — we’ll cover a brief overview of implementation here:

  1. Train Implementers: Due to the sheer scope and challenge required in adopting SAFe, most organizations will need a combination of internal and external mentors and coaches. These people should be capable of easily teaching and delivering SAFe techniques to others throughout the organization.
  2. Train Executes, Managers, and Leaders: The initial batch of Implementers should first focus on training all executives, managers, and leaders. Once these fundamental team members understand the Lean-Agile mindset, core SAFe principles, and implementation techniques, the process will become much smoother for the entire organization.
  3. Train Teams: Individuals should initially be organized into Agile Teams, who can then all be trained on the various Lean, Agile, and SAFe principles.
  4. Launch Agile Release Trains: Finally, once the organization has been properly trained, it’s time to group Agile Teams together into ARTs, and then generate models for objective planning, program execution, program increment planning, and all the other components required for a successful Agile Release Train.

Organization Levels

SAFe defines three levels within the organization:

  • Portfolio Level: Focuses on the Portfolio Vision, creating Investment Themes with assigned funding, and makes use of Kanban. Epics are also devised at this level, which contain significant initiatives to help guide value streams toward the larger portfolio goals.
  • Program Level: As we discussed earlier, Program Level focuses on specific business value streams. One key aspect of Program Level is the process of breaking down Epics into smaller features that form the Program Backlog.
  • Team Level: At the Team Level, features from the Program Level are broken down further into Stories, forming the Team Backlog. Scrum is then utilized, over the course of typical iteration lengths (2 weeks), to complete the features of Stories.

Advantages of SAFe

Regardless of any possible downsides, there are clearly a number of positive benefits to using SAFe:

  • Promotes Lean and Agile practices into traditional corporate organizations: Since SAFe focuses on Leanand Agile principles, this promotes a dramatic cultural shift for many organizations looking to adopt SAFe. While it doesn’t require actual restructuring within an organization, SAFe does require the creation of “virtual teams,” who can then be assigned to Agile Teams, and from there to Agile Release Trains, in order to fulfill business goals.
  • Emphasizes short term deliveries: Most traditional organizations may have projects with delivery goals that are months if not years in the future. SAFe focuses on a default period of 10 weeks for most Agile Release Trains, which emphasizes regular feedback loops and adaptive planning.
  • Free of charge: While Scaled Agile, the company behind SAFe, does offer numerous training courses to help individuals or organizations get up to speed on SAFe, at the fundamental level, the use of SAFe is free of charge.
  • Advocates long-lived teams: In many organizations, teams are created only for the length of a single project, after which time they are disbanded. SAFe promotes teams that remain together for long periods of time, scaling as necessary across numerous projects.
  • Suited for large organizations: SAFe focuses heavily on supporting very large organizations, through both the practices and implementation itself, and through the availability of training and courses from SAFe professionals.
  • Emphasizes people over technology: Due to the reliance on Lean and Agile principles, SAFe heavily focuses on the importance of people and their knowledge over technology. This recognition of the power and decision-making skills of individuals often leads to products which are better-suited for the customer.

Disadvantages of SAFe

Critics of SAFe will contend that the methodology suffers from a few flaws, and depending on the size and needs of your organization, would argue that other methodologies may better serve you throughout the software development life cycle:

  • Pushes certification and training: The SAFe website, which is basically the only real source of information on SAFe and proper usage, places a heavy focus on pushing certification and training courses to organizations looking to implement SAFe. Many critics maintain that this focus on revenue takes away from the potential growth and implementation of the methodology, compared to other, more open methods.
  • Highly prescriptive: SAFe heavily emphasizes the use of its particular practices and rules, without leaving much room for customization on the part of the organization. This strictness can be rather stifling, unless organizations are willing to swallow the whole SAFe pill.
  • “Manager-oriented” Agile: Many critics argue that SAFe fails to truly implement Agile principles, but instead gives the illusion of true Lean and Agile principles by layering Agile on top of a pre-existing organizational hierarchy. In short, this allows managers and executives to make many of the fundamental decisions that trickle down through Agile Teams and ARTs, which must then be transformed into Stories that are actually implemented by the developers and other team members who truly understand the issues first-hand.

SAFe and Scaled Agile Framework are registered trademarks of Scaled Agile, Inc.