6kites | Learn Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) – Guide to Lean-Agile Principles

Global corporations like Intel, Cisco, and Air France-KLM have experimented with Dean Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to implement agile at scale. SAFe is amongst the world’s most popular methods to scale agile across enterprises, according to the State of Agile report

The question is, how do you determine if this is the optimum solution for your organizational agility?

Let’s deep dive into the fundamentals of Scaled Agile Framework to learn about its lean-agile principles and the key values of SAFe adoption.

How Scaled Agile Framework Fits into Your Organizational Agility?

Scaled Agile Framework takes a blended approach to Agile, DevOps, and Lean principles to address the full product development cycle:

  1. Vision and Strategy – Portfolio level
  2. Economic View – Large Solution
  3. Planning and Reporting – Program level
  4. Execution and Delivery – Team level

At the grassroots, teams employ their preferred agile development processes, such as scrum and Kanban, to develop features. This is an important principle of SAFe, as it addresses the bedrock issue when scaling agile: to incorporate diverse technology stacks and work cultures across multiple business units. By leaving teams the autonomy to choose the agile methodology that works for them, you can create a SAFe environment without changing the way your teams work.

A team of agile teams is called the Agile Release Train (ART), as demonstrated below:

Agile Release Train

The components of the Agile Release Train, © Scaled Agile, Inc

An ART comprises specialists with all the skills needed for continuous value creation, from planning, committing, and developing features to deploying them. As such, people are expected to operate out of their departments with authority to determine their own scope of work, as well as how to execute it. With this construction, SAFe helps to ease the pain of cross-functional collaboration by minimizing overhead.

Prior to the formation of ARTs is the identification of value streams. A value stream specifies all the processes needed to deliver continuous value to the customer. This is the basis of Lean thinking: to use the customer’s value as a reference point and identify all the activities that contribute to this value.

Value streams

The components of the Value Stream, © Scaled Agile, Inc

Here’s an example of a value stream in a software development environment:

  1. A user reports a problem and requests a solution.
  2. The business owner responds to the user to find possible solutions.
  3. The business analyst discusses solutions with the development team. Together, they choose the best one and agree to deliver a new feature.
  4. Developers commit to a delivery date.
  5. Developers build the feature.
  6. The QA team tests the new feature to ensure that the functionality is in order.
  7. The development team integrates the new feature into the software.
  8. The business analyst conducts user acceptance testing.
  9. The business analyst delivers feedback to the development team.
  10. The development team incorporates the changes and releases the software update.

SAFe elevates lean principles by organizing teams around the value stream, instead of projects. Typically, value streams are composed of multiple ARTs. Based on the value that each of these ARTs produces, companies can allocate budget overhead. Funding may trickle down to the number of ARTs on a value stream or the headcount/composition of team members on teams within an ART. If they wish to put more funding into another initiative, they might move a team or an ART to another value stream at a program increment (PI) boundary. This process is one of the key aspects of a SAFe portfolio called Lean Budgets.

The result? Value stream mapping allows you to optimize internal processes to ensure that each element carries value to the customer. The product owner can track all the features being developed while ensuring fast and free-flowing value delivery to the customer.


The ART and Science of SAFe

Once you have identified the value stream and formed the Agile Release Train around it, it’s time to get work done.

If ART is a virtual organization operated under the guidelines set in the value stream, how about the individual team members within it? The answer is Program Increment (PI) planning.

For a start, here’s a brief introduction to SAFe events and activities at the Team level.

Events SAFe Activities
Program Increment (PI) Equivalent to iteration within an agile team, PI refers to incremental feature development over an 8- to 12-week timebox. The output of a PI is considered a milestone.
PI Planning All teams, including remote members, come together over a face-to-face or video-conference meeting to create iteration plans and objectives for the coming PI.
System Demo ART teams will test the development work in the staging environment and get feedback from the primary stakeholders for every iteration. Subsequently, there will be a final system demo of all the features developed over the PI duration.

Program increment is a shared repository of all the ART teams’ objectives.

During PI planning, teams discuss and pull stories from the program backlog to determine the most important work items and the duration to accomplish them. This activity ensures that all the agile teams on an ART work toward the same goal…

…to avoid this:



The output of every PI planning is visualized on a SAFe Program board. It summarizes features or goals of the project, as well as the target release date. You also need to identify cross-team dependencies to coordinate work efficiently. Once the board is ready, you can then communicate the PI plan to the rest of the organization to make sure everyone is on the same page.

PI planning

The components of a Program board, © Scaled Agile, Inc

A popular method that companies use to run PI planning is on a Kanban board. For this, Atlassian’s Jira Software is the most comprehensive agile tool for SAFe planning.

kanban board
Jira’s Kanban board

You will have all the items from the program backlog sitting at the far left of the board. Teams can then move these stories along the swimlane to commit work to a specific iteration.

Take it further, read The Complete Guide to Scaling Agile with Jira Software and Portfolio.

SAFe Configurations: Choosing Your Ideal Scaling Method

In practice, you can customize SAFe to cater to your team’s specific needs. The framework itself is not a blueprint for success. It is only a guide that tells you where you want to be. It’s up your organization to determine how to get there.

As such, SAFe covers simple to complex organizational structures and products. There are four agility approaches to Scaled Agile Framework: Essential SAFe, Large Solution SAFe, Portfolio SAFe, and Full SAFe.

Below is the Full SAFe configuration for enterprises:

SAFe configuration
Full SAFe, © Scaled Agile, Inc
  • Lean Portfolio Management: Where business leaders create investment themes and vision. A portfolio plan consists of multiple projects with associated initiatives and epics that define the minimum viable product to be delivered. At the same time, they map out the value stream that specifies all the steps to achieve the desired solution.
  • Business Solutions and Lean Systems: Based on the strategic theme and epics set at the portfolio level, the epic owner will work directly with the customers to calculate the Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF). This enables teams to prioritize work that delivers higher value or revenue in shorter production time.
  • DevOps and Release on Demand: Business owners form the Agile Release Train to complete all the projects that are functionally related. An ART consists of 5 to 12 agile teams. This is where backlog items get distributed through program increment planning.
  • Team and Technical Agility: Cross-functional agile teams are coming together to deliver program increments. They have full ownership of the program backlog, stories, and the execution strategy.

Understanding the roles and objectives of each level, you’ll be able to comprehend the components of each SAFe configuration. Full SAFe is intended for complex products with dozens of teams working together; Portfolio SAFe works well for companies that have one or two value streams; Large Solution SAFe focuses on building complex solutions that are beyond the scope of a single ART; and Essential SAFe offers the building blocks for the entire framework.

That said, SAFe is no more than a modular agile framework. Once you learn the basics, you still need to develop the right strategy to apply these principles. This flexibility is what makes SAFe a scalable solution for enterprise agility in the first place.

Get in touch with us for a free, no-commitment consultation to scale agile across your enterprise. In the meantime, read The Complete Guide to Scaling Agile with Jira Software and Portfolio to learn expert tips and best practices for scaling your Atlassian footprint.

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