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The Principles and Implementation of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

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The pace of digital disruption is putting even large corporations at risk of closure.  Startups are using disruption to their benefit by embracing robust approaches and creating unique business models.

This intense competition and disruption warrants organizations to keep evolving in order to thrive.  They can do this by creating cutting-edge systems and software, adopting pragmatic methodologies, and embracing an organizational culture that motivates innovation, agility and teamwork.

To develop state-of-the-art systems and software in this disruptive age, waterfall or even the agile methodology isn’t sufficient.  These methods work well with small teams.  However, for large enterprises and teams these approaches do not match the scale requirements.

In order to apply Lean and Agile practices on a higher scale, the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)—a knowledge base of organization and workflow patterns—was developed by Scaled Agile, based on insights and practical experience helping clients address their real-world scaling issues.  The approach can be applied to small teams as well as large enterprises comprising of teams of several thousand individuals.  The SAFe approach leverages 3 bodies of knowledge:  Agile Software Development, Lean Product Development, and Systems Thinking.

The SAFe Project Management philosophy is illustrated by one comprehensive visual, known as the “Big Picture.”  There are 2 versions of the “Big Picture”—a 3-level view and a 4-level view.

The 3-level view is suitable for smaller systems, products, and services.  The 3 levels are:

  1. Portfolio Level
  2. Program Level
  3. Team Level

The 4-level view—is ideal for organizations implementing and maintaining large, complex solutions that need hundreds of practitioners—entails:

  1. Portfolio Level
  2. Value Stream Level
  3. Program Level
  4. Team Level

Now, let’s take a deeper look at these levels.

Team Level

SAFe teams define, build, and test stories—small pieces of new functionality—and deliver value in sprints (series of fixed-length iterations).  The teams use a common iteration cadence to synchronize their work with other teams and to allow all teams to iterate simultaneously.

Program Level

At this level, SAFe teams are organized into a virtual program structure, known as the Agile Release Train (ART).  Each ART is a long-lived, autonomous team of Agile teams and other stakeholders to plan, commit, executive, inspect, and adapt together.  The ART aligns teams to a common mission, provide architectural and user experience guidance, facilitate flow, and provide continuous objective evidence of progress.

Value Stream Level

This level supports the development of large and complex solutions—that necessitate multiple, synchronized ARTs—and has a stronger focus on solution intent and solution context.  Suppliers and additional stakeholders contribute to the Value Stream level.

Portfolio Level

This level organizes and funds a set of Value Streams.  The Value Streams realize a set of solutions, which enable an organization to achieve its strategic mission.  This level provides solution development finding through Lean-Agile budgeting, governance, and coordination of larger development initiatives.

In addition, there is a Foundation layer in the SAFe Framework that supports the entire organization in development through 5 key attributes:

  • Lean-Agile Leaders
  • Core Values
  • Lean-Agile Mindset
  • Principles
  • Practice Communities

Let’s now have a look at the 4 key attributes.

The Lean-Agile Leaders

The successful implementation of SAFe framework entails training of managers in Lean-Agile values, insights, and ways of operating.  This necessitates embracing 6 critical leadership principles:

  • Urgency for change
  • Lifelong learning
  • People development
  • Inspirational mission and vision
  • Decentralized decision making
  • Motivation of knowledge workers

SAFe Core Values

SAFe core values are the guiding principles for people to follow, and dictate behaviors and actions key to the framework’s effectiveness.  The core values and principles of the Foundation Layer of the SAFe methodology include:

  • Alignment
  • Built-in Quality
  • Transparency
  • Program Execution

Lean-Agile Mindset

SAFe leaders understand and embrace the Lean-Agile Mindset, ways of thinking and operating, and impart these to others.  The Lean-Agile Mindset is captured by 2 concepts:

  • House of Lean
  • The Agile Manifesto

SAFe Principles

There are 9 fundamental Principles to Lean-Agile Thinking that we must comprehend and integrate:

  • Adopt an economic view
  • Apply systems thinking
  • Assume variability and preserve options
  • Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles
  • Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems
  • Visualize and limit WP, Reduce batches’ sizes, and manage queue lengths
  • Apply cadence and synchronize with cross-domain planning
  • Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers
  • Decentralize decision making

Interested in learning more about the SAFe methodology, organizational levels, values, principles, and, most importantly, how to implement it?  You can download an editable PowerPoint on the Scaled Agile Framework here on the Flevy documents marketplace.

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About Mark Bridges

Mark Bridges is a Senior Director of Strategy at Flevy. Flevy is your go-to resource for best practices in business management, covering management topics from Strategic Planning to Operational Excellence to Digital Transformation (view full list here). Learn how the Fortune 100 and global consulting firms do it. Improve the growth and efficiency of your organization by leveraging Flevy's library of best practice methodologies and templates. Prior to Flevy, Mark worked as an Associate at McKinsey & Co. and holds an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. You can connect with Mark on LinkedIn here.

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