The Guide to the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

The Guide to the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

The Guide to the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

In 2011, Dean Leffingwell and Drew Jemilo released the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) as a means of helping businesses design better systems and software that were more in line with their customers’ fast-changing needs and expectations.

In the past, teams used traditional project management processes to deliver their software solutions. But as businesses experienced an increased need to keep up and respond to changing market conditions, new frameworks, such as SAFe, were developed to improve delivery across the enterprise. SAFe is currently one of the most popular agile delivery frameworks.

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) represents organizational and workflow patterns for implementing Agile practices at an enterprise level. The framework includes a complete set of concepts, terms, activities, and how-tos, as well as a structured guide on the roles, responsibilities, and values to be upheld.

To put it simply, the Scaled Agile Framework promotes alignment, delivery, and collaboration across multiple teams that follow the agile model. The framework was developed around four bodies of knowledge: systems thinking, agile software development, devops, and lean product development.

This guide to the SAFe framework will highlight the core values and principles, as well as a straightforward implementation roadmap.

The SAFe Core Values

The SAFe core values describe a corporate culture fostered by leadership and practiced by all team members in order to use the SAFe framework most effectively. The SAFe core values are as follows:

  • Alignment – According to the SAFe framework, a lean enterprise must put planning front and center. When everyone is on the same page about the current state of the organization and individual responsibilities, they will know how to move together and achieve their collective goals. By synchronizing multiple teams and activities regularly, all levels of the portfolio will remain in alignment and information will flow more freely up and down, instead of the rigid, top-down command structure.
  • Built-in Quality – Agility should never be acquired at the cost of quality. SAFe requires that teams across the entire organization are aligned on a definition of done and make quality an inherent part of their work. Within the Scaled Agile Framework, there are five dimensions of built-in quality. These include flow, architecture and design quality, system quality, code quality, and release quality.
  • Transparency – An agile transformation through SAFe encourages trust-building behavior. This will include work planning into smaller batches so that problems are identified sooner. There should be real-time visibility into backlog progress across all levels.
  • Program Execution – Program execution sits at the engine of SAFe and powers everything else in the framework. Every agile team is executing to continuously deliver business value.

SAFe also requires a Lean-Agile mindset and behavior from leadership. Company leaders create the necessary environment to embrace all of the core values needed for Lean thinking.

The 10 SAFe Principles

The SAFe principles are meant to inspire lean agile decision-making across functional and organizational boundaries. These principles are intended to influence everyone in the organization. They also promote a shift from a traditional to a Lean-Agile mindset. There are ten Lean-Agile principles as follows:

1. Take an economic view

The first of these Lean-Agile principles works to achieve the shortest sustainable lead-time by having every individual in the decision-making supply chain understand the consequences and implications of delays. Early delivery is not always enough. According to SAFe, it is also about sharing responsibilities, such as sequencing jobs for maximum benefit, operating with lean budgets, and understanding economic trade-offs.

2. Apply systems thinking

Systems thinking focuses on three key areas: the solution, the enterprise building the system, and the value streams. In this context, solutions can refer to almost everything delivered to the customer, whether products, services, or systems. They can also be internal or external to the enterprise.

When it comes to large solutions with many interconnected parts, team members should have a birds-eye-view on how everything fits together. Stakeholders need to consider the company’s people, management, and internal processes and work to eliminate silos, become cross-functional, and/or form new agreements with partners, suppliers, and customers. Lastly, organizations need to clearly define how value flows from concept to cash in the solution development value streams.

3. Assume variability; preserve options

Traditionally, design and life cycle practices implied a single design-and-requirements option that was chosen early in the development process. However, if that choice proves to be wrong, it is much harder to make future adjustments. This failure to adapt can lead to a suboptimal design.  The end design will be better positioned to create higher economic outcomes by maintaining multiple design options and requirements throughout a longer period of the development cycle.

4. Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles

The fourth lean agile principle tackles risk and uncertainty through learning milestones. It is not enough that every component of the system proves to be functional. The entire system must be taken into consideration to determine the feasibility of implementing design choices. To accelerate faster learning cycles, integration points need to be planned on a regular interval.

5. Base milestones on an objective evaluation of working systems

Developers, business owners, and customers share responsibility in ensuring that the investment in new solutions will generate economic benefit. The phase-gate “waterfall” process was developed to meet this challenge, yet it has fallen short in mitigating risk. In Lean-Agile development, integration points provide objective milestones to evaluate the solution across the development cycle. Such a regular evaluation provides the necessary technical, financial, and fitness-for-purpose governance to assure that the ongoing investment will produce a commensurate return.

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

By limiting the WIP, stakeholders can see exactly how work is evolving. In terms of software development, this refers to limiting the amount of overlapping work, the complexity of each work item, and the total amount of work handled at any given time. With smaller batch sizes, the team can continuously validate that their work is headed in the right direction.

7. Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning

Agile teams will typically apply cadence through their sprints or iterations. Creating rhythm for all possible situations will help reduce complexity, enforce quality, address uncertainties, and promote collaboration between multiple teams within larger organizations.

8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

In a Lean-Agile transformation, leaders know that individual incentive compensation will not typically lead to innovation, creativity, or employee engagement. These incentives can sometimes backfire, leading to internal competition and destroying the necessary cooperation to achieve the larger goals of the system. An approach that yields better outcomes for both individuals, customers, and the enterprise, as a whole includes the promotion of autonomy, minimization of constraints, and the promotion of an environment of mutual influence.

9. Decentralize decision making

By decentralizing decision making, businesses can reduce queue lengths and take on a more economical approach. It also allows teams the necessary autonomy to get their work done. Leadership should preserve their decision-making authority on matters of strategic importance while also enabling their teams to make informed choices on day-to-day operations.

10. Organize around value

Many organizations operate around principles surrounding functional expertise. In today’s digital age, the focus should be on innovative solutions capable of responding to customers’ continually changing needs and expectations. These solutions require cooperation and coordination between all functional areas, with their incumbent handoffs, dependencies, waste, and delays. Business Agility requires the enterprise to organize itself around value. When customer and market demands change, the business needs to quickly and effortlessly pivot around the new value flow.

How Does the SAFe Framework Work?

Companies looking to implement the SAFe framework will need a strong desire to change, executive-level backing, and a Scrum foundation. There are 12 steps to a successful implementation roadmap. These include the following:

1. Reaching the tipping point

People will naturally resist change, especially in a large organization. Team members are less likely to challenge their long-held beliefs, habits, or values if they are not given a good reason. In other words, the status quo needs to become simply unacceptable. There must be a “tipping point” where the motivation for achieving change outweighs the instinct to resist it.

2. Train lean-agile change agents

Today’s digital disruptions and constant market changes increase the level of urgency to inspire change. This is true even if a company does not perceive a problem so big that it cannot handle its current business model. To make the SAFe implementation a reality, businesses will need to train Lean-Agile change agents to see it through.

3. Train executives, managers, and leaders

Even if you train several SAFe Program Consultants as change agents to kickstart the Lean-Agile transformation within the organization, they cannot be expected to implement the complete change. For that to happen, senior executives and other stakeholders will need to step in and lead the change. Commitment from management is not enough. They also need to know the step-by-step implementation.

4. Create a lean-agile center of excellence

The Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE) is a small team of dedicated people that will implement the SAFe Lean-Agile strategy. In many cases, the LACE can be the differentiating factor between organizations that are fully committed to adopting Lean-Agile practices and those that practice it in name only.

5. Identify value streams and ARTs (Agile Release Train)

The next critical move is to identify value streams and the agile release train. These are the organizational foundations needed for a successful SAFe implementation. Those looking to cut corners during this step will often slow down their progress. This step requires an in-depth understanding of the organizational model, and should be optimized to facilitate the value flow across functional silos, boundaries, and activities.

6. Create the implementation plan

Enterprise stakeholders can apply their Lean-Agile Mindset, values, principles, and training knowledge to identify new strategies to implement their new way of working. Up until this point, the roadmap revolved around conceptualizing the change. The next step is to start implementing:

  • Choosing the first value stream
  • Selecting the first ART
  • Creating an initial plan for additional ARTs and value streams

7. Prepare for ART launch

This stage is about executing all the necessary activities for a successful ART launch. SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs) will typically lead the implementation of the initial agile release train. They will also be supported by the other SAFe stakeholders, and LACE members mentioned at point 4. Activities that contribute to preparing the ART launch include:

  • Define the ART
  • Set the launch date and cadence for the program calendar
  • Train ART leaders and other stakeholders
  • Establish Agile teams
  • Train Product Managers and Product Owners (POs)
  • Train a Scrum Master
  • Train System Architects and/or Engineers
  • Prepare the program backlog

8. Train teams and launch the ART

Agile release train teams are comprised of people who will create the system necessary for implementation. Team members come from all over the organization, with backgrounds in different fields such as development, support, operations, and other domains that help define, build, test, and deploy their solutions. They will also need to understand their role in the ART and the necessary Lean and Agile skills to be effective in their role.

9. Coach the ART execution

It’s essential to keep in mind that planning and training Agile teams, by themselves, will not successfully implement the Scaled Agile framework. They will only provide the opportunity to start the journey. To support them, Lean-Agile leaders and SPCs will also need to be mindful that knowledge does not always equate to understanding. They must provide team and ART-level coaching.

10. Launch more ARTs and value streams

At this stage of implementation, business and development should be aligned behind a shared vision and mission. This implies that everyone has agreed to a new way of working and have adopted a common language, method, cadence, roles, and responsibilities. The first ART implementation will illustrate the effectiveness of adopting SAFe.

It should also create an effective pattern that will help implement other ARTs in the value stream. By launching more ARTs and value streams, businesses can begin to generate a more significant ROI in the form of higher quality, productivity, employee engagement, and/or faster time-to-market.

11. Extend to the portfolio

At this point, it is time to expand implementation to anchor the culture’s new approach. The exercise will expose some traditional and phase-gated processes that often impede performance.

This will put pressure on the portfolio and will trigger additional changes to further improve the strategic flow. If these legacy approaches are not modernized, the enterprise will revert to its old habits, and potentially lead to an organization that is “Agile in name only.” With training and engagement, even these traditional processes can be evolved.

12. Sustain and improve

The final step of the process is to accelerate the enterprise towards business agility. To reinforce the SAFe transformation, leaders will need to expand their view of its implementation. They must maintain the necessary enthusiasm and energy on short Program Increment (PI) cycles, while also setting larger business agility goals.


The SAFe framework provides companies with a viable option to scale agile within their organization and achieve their business outcomes. The SAFe journey begins with education, training, and an iterative approach to integrate Lean and Agile methodology principles.

An excellent place to start is the i4 Group – a transformation consulting and agile training firm that is here to amplify learning and empower your company’s teams to deliver fast, continuously improve, and build integrity and customer value.

Enable your leadership stakeholders, program managers, and core change agents to train in the SAFe framework. Once they understand the journey, they will be able to work with experts to design an enterprise transformation roadmap and adapt to your industry’s changing requirements.