What is the Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe?

My SAFe Journey

Before answering the question that is the main topic of this article, I would like to comment on my own personal journey to the Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe. As an Agile Coach, ScrumMaster and Kanban Ace Trainer I frequently run into the challenge organizations face to extend the benefits of agile methods: such as responding faster to change, achieving higher productivity, and a much higher success rate for software development projects; but this time applied to serve a large organization, and not only for the areas of software development, and product marketing but to reach across several other business and IT areas such as customer support, finance, compliance, IT infrastructure, database operations, analytics and marketing strategy.

For this reason I explored, read, and evaluated the three main agile scaling frameworks available today: SAFe, LeSS and DAD. I went beyond just reading, and also attended talks about them, heard valuable opinions from people I respect from the agile & lean communities both in person and in written form. One aspect that tipped the balance towards SAFe was the fact that it presented a well designed coherent framework that leveraged both Scrum, and Kanban. Given the fact that I am certain Kanban can easily scale to cover and optimize any value chain, SAFe gained in my view a powerful advantage over the other alternatives. It was then that I decided to become proficient in it, and I became a certified SAFe Program Consultant.

In the paragraphs that follow, I summarize what SAFe is, and hopefully it will motivate you to explore it further as a valuable alternative in your toolbox to bring agility to larger organizations.

What is SAFe in Brief?

SAFe is a large coherent framework, that you can see as a unified toolbox that provides principles, values, practices, tools and techniques to bring the benefits of agile and lean methods to large teams, with a strong emphasis on software development and the whole IT area.

Before SAFe, there was a growing consensus among technology companies, that teams who leveraged agile methods or frameworks such as Scrum, Kanban and XP were able to deliver products faster, and with more success, than those who used traditional Waterfall methods such as RUP, or PMBOK inspired project management. In addition, companies with agile teams report experiencing a better ability to respond and adapt to change, which is a constant in today’s marketplace. Agile has become a must not only for small startups, but for today’s corporations and Fortune 500s.

However, the vast majority of agile methods, literature and books were designed to deal with small teams from eight to twenty-four people. Scrum for example has a limit of 8 people per team, and once you have more than 3 teams the coordination effort becomes quite challenging. Scrum’s answer: using Scrum of Scrums has very little in the form of specific guidance, or details on how to implement it, or manage it.

Another problem that came with larger teams adopting agile was the reality of working across sites, meaning some of your developers, testers, and marketing team are not in the same city, the same country, or even the same continent. Scrum’s insistence on co-locating teams did not help to address the reality of today’s global teams. Kanban proved it could work in this context, but adoption is much less than Scrum, and the knowledge-base for large scale implementations is limited.

Moreover, after Scrum is adopted within the software and product development areas inside a company there usually arises a need to apply these benefits across the rest of the IT organization. However, Scrum does not easily fit the IT infrastructure, database teams, security and DevOps. In this context Kanban naturally shines, since it does not disrupt existing roles, and it can work on any area or department by embracing their workflow, and improving productivity across IT areas.

SAFe’s big advantage here beyond other scaling methods, is that it embraces both Scrum and Kanban. At the product and software development level Scrum is preferred, which is understandable given Scrum’s large user base inside many software development and product marketing teams. But to scale beyond this area SAFe leverages Kanban to reach to the Program, Value Stream and Portfolio levels. Companies adopting SAFe can benefit from the best of both.

Dean Leafingwell, the creator of SAFe frequently shares the story behind his Big Picture diagram which explains in one single image most of SAFe. Dean says after explaining for some time his vision for Agile and Lean for a large company, the customer asked: Could you draw me a picture? That would truly help me understand it. And that is how he began the work of translating that vision into the Big Picture diagram; and lately Essential SAFe to address Program level implementation.

In both cases the Big Picture diagram summarizes all the major pieces of the framework highlighting the organization and cohesiveness of SAFe’s approach. However someone who sees the diagram for the first time, it can be either an amazing experience (since you immediately understand it) or a perplexing moment (given the complexity) for that reason I include below Essential SAFe which focuses only on the team and program level.

Essential SAFe 4.0

Do not worry you do not need to understand the Big Picture yet, just remember the basics: at the team level Scrum is the foundation, and at the program level and above Kanban helps the agile teams organize the larger efforts. In case you wonder, you could also have Kanban at the team level, but you would need to a version of Kanban with built-in support for Scrum such as the Kanban-Ace Framework which welcomes and leverages Scrum via the Akashi Bridge.

In future articles, I plan to cover other aspects of the framework such as the principles behind the framework, recommended adoption patterns, and common criticism and myths that have mostly to do with lack of knowledge of the framework. One thing is certain though, if you are planning to scale your agile initiatives to large groups from 30 to 1000s of people you must carefully consider what SAFe has to offer, as the chart below shows the market has already discovered SAFe and many are adopting it to scale Agile.

Scaling methods - State of Agile

Featured Image Credit: Tobi Gaulke CC BY NC SA, Grimselpass, Switzerland.


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