Scaling Agile Series Part 4: Does Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) Lead to Agility at Scale?

This is post 4 of 4 in the series “Scaling Agile Series”

  1. Scaling Agile Series Part 1: Can you Scale Agility?
  2. Scaling Agile Series Part 2: A look at Two of Four Popular Agile Scaling Frameworks: SoS and LeSS
  3. Scaling Agile Series Part 3: Diving into Disciplined Agile (DA)
  4. Scaling Agile Series Part 4: Does Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) Lead to Agility at Scale?

In this post, I will look at Scaled Agile Framework, also known as SAFe. My intent is not to describe the entire framework since it is quite extensive and has a very thorough website that leads users through all levels of the framework. I do intend to point out some of the areas that I feel are particularly important when understanding whether agility can be maintained or strengthened when scaling with SAFe. Don’t miss the 1st introductory post, the 2nd post on Scrum of Scrums (SoS) and Large Scaled Scrum (LeSS), or the 3rd post on Disciplined Agile.

As a practitioner and coach of agile and lean practices, I have found myself working with mid to large organizations whose team-level practices are working well.  Unfortunately, within these companies’ management and executive level teams, the value of the lean and agile practices are either unknown, misunderstood, or feel unapplicable.

There are organizations who know they need something (a framework) or someone (a coach or team of coaches) to assist with their organization’s Lean/Agile transition, but there are others who feel that simply following the structure of SAFe (or the other scaling frameworks I discussed in recent posts) is enough. But I ask myself, and them from time to time, is it enough to simply follow the rules without truly understanding the importance of lean and agile values.

SAFe Principles at Work

SAFe, like Agile and Lean, is grounded in a set of fundamental principles. At its very core, SAFe embodies a Lean and Agile mindset. Practitioners who practice the following nine SAFe principles will also embody that mindset.

That sounds great, but how does an organization exhibit those values as it relates to Agility? To answer that question, here is a synopsis of the nine SAFe principles:

#1: Take an economic view – Ensure the full chain of leadership, management and knowledge workers understand the impact of choices being made. It is not good enough to only have executive leaders who understand the economics of the product direction. If decisions can be made at several levels then teams feel intrinsically motivated and delay will be minimized because not every decision needs to go through the highest level of the organization. Another important economic element is to deliver the right work early and often, thus providing optimal value to end users.

#2: Apply systems thinking – Systems in SAFe refer to hardware or software solutions as well as the people required to optimize the full value stream. One really does not exist without the other. Components, people, and value streams must exist in concert in order to be efficient and effective. For example, when building, deploying, maintaining and commercializing a constellation of satellites, the software, hardware and infrastructure must be thought of holistically. One component should not be optimized without understanding how that affects the entire solution. Adding to that, the organization and how each department works together to support, maintain and commercialize the hardware and software for the satellites is its own system. Leaders must cultivate collaboration across all teams. And finally, the organization must optimize all value streams to provide the most benefit to the users and organizations dependent on the end product.

#3: Assume variability; preserve options – In this principle, the people involved in building the system stay open to change early in the process because little is actually known at the beginning of the project. As time progresses and more is known, learning and adaption to change occur and the system design and direction stabilize.

#4: Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles – Plan – Do – Check – Adjust. This pattern is the primary way in which systems builders determine whether they are on track. Without continuous checks and local integrations, adjustments will be difficult if not impossible to manage. Stakeholders must understand that as integration points slip, the overall system progress too will slip.

#5: Base milestones on an objective evaluation of working systems – Stakeholders review the incremental system deliverables frequently which provides learning opportunities and real-time status vs. “wishful thinking.”

#6: Visualize and limit work in progress (WIP), reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths – Easier said than done. These three fundamental principles of lean are a critical to building systems, achieving continuous flow and moving as quickly as possible from an idea to actual value.

#7: Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning

This principle unlocks the predictability needed to sync across many teams, release trains and programs.

  • Cadence provides the rhythm and routine which allow team members to focus on variables during delivery cycles.
  • Synchronization aligns business owners and business goals and pulls the customer into the development process. Synchronization pulls the different pieces of the system together.
  • Cross-domain planning is the glue that holds the disparate entities together. It ensures the current state is understood, realigns the parties involved and sets a plan to continue moving forward towards the common goal.


#8: Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

  • Leverage the systems view: With SAFe, knowledge workers understand the goals and economics driving the systems they are building and are critical in all levels of planning.
  • Understand the role of compensation: Pay people enough to take money off the table.  SAFe encourages organizations to look beyond compensation and understand what motivates their employees, and start by paying people the right amount that shows they are valued by the organization.
  • Provide autonomy with purpose, mission and minimum possible constraints.
  • Create an environment of mutual influence. Know that influence is not just top down. Leaders are encouraged to be open to ideas and influence from all layers of the organization.


#9: Decentralize decision-making

Staying true to a lean principle of eliminating waste, decisions which require escalation to higher levels increase delay and therefore inject needless waste into the flow. However, not all decisions should be decentralized.  For example, strategic decisions should remain centralized, but those that can be made at lower levels should be encouraged. This not only speeds up output, but also shows trust in the teams and the process.

These principles are a lot to understand and remember. If an organization continues to refer back to each one as it moves through regular operations and ensures all decisions are made with the intent to follow all nine, it can succeed by maintaining and strengthening agility at scale.


SAFe 4.5 at a Glance: Simplifying a complex framework

A lot of companies I have worked with over the years don’t necessarily need a large complex framework, while others most certainly do. SAFe provides a good deal of flexibility and recently updated their offerings to provide 4 “levels” of the framework, which provides a structure and evolution for what can seem an overwhelming framework.


The Layers Defined

Essential SAFe, Portfolio SAFe, Large System SAFe, Full SAFe, oh my…



For individuals and organizations new to scaling Agile (or to Agile itself), start with the easiest structure to understand. The simplest, most basic framework that SAFe is built upon is Essential SAFe. Essential SAFe is an important building block for larger more complex implementations. Ensuring a program or organization closely follows the basic tenants does not ensure success (because nothing really does), but doing so provides a foundation and critical starting point for more complex implementations.

In Essential SAFe, the Team and Program Levels form an organizational structure called the Agile Release Train (ART), where Agile teams, key stakeholders, and other resources are dedicated to an important, ongoing, integrated solution.

Essential SAFe



Portfolio SAFe adds to the basic essentials of SAFe by increasing the awareness at the portfolio or value stream level. At this level, both strategy and funding come into play. An organization may have multiple value streams. Guidance at this level will ensure the release trains are focused not only on the most strategic development items, but also on those items that will add the most value to the organization’s bottom line.

Under Portfolio SAFe, the organization will have one or more release trains all of which receive guidance from the Portfolio team.

Portfolio SAFe


Large Solution

Large solution SAFe differs from Portfolio SAFe by adding consideration for large and complex solutions requiring multiple Agile release trains and suppliers, but not requiring portfolio-level considerations. The organization focuses on one strategy and one driving value stream. All funding is explicitly aimed at a single consideration, and all teams drive towards one large and integrated solution.

Large Solution SAFe



Full SAFe takes scaling agility to the highest level of complexity. Full SAFe covers large integrated solutions requiring hundreds of people or more and includes all levels of SAFe: team, program, large solution, and portfolio. Full SAFe is the most challenging to implement and should not be approached lightly. Taking the challenges into consideration, a full SAFe implementation can be achieved with hard work, consistency, and dedication from all levels of the organization.

Full SAFe


How SAFe Promotes Agility

Safe promotes agility through continuous focus on core Lean and Agile values: alignment, built-in quality, transparency, and program execution. Through regular alignment, teams and trains will ensure they are all focused on primary organizational goals.


Level of Scaling Agility (My “Ah Ha” Moment)

I was recently a participant at a two-day Agile conference in Denver and the keynote speaker on the second day was Dean Leffingwell, the founder of SAFe. His presentation was centered around the nine SAFe Principles and provided a health check survey for use in organizations practicing (or attempting to practice) SAFe.

Here’s where my “Ah Ha” moment came (and if I am honest, changed my initial thoughts going into this blog series) as to whether you can scale agility using SAFe. If an organization truly follows the SAFe principles at all levels and invests the time, money, cultural and emotional commitment to each of these principles, then scaling and agility can live in harmony.

Check out this post on the 2017 SAFe Summit from my friend and colleague Kenneth Cascante: 2017 SAFe Summit: The Continued Rise of Agile at Scale.

Don’t forget to catch up on the series by reading Scaling Agile Part 1, Scaling Agile Part 2 and Scaling Agile Part 3.

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