Scaled Agile Framework: SAFe For Lean Enterprises

What Is A Scaled Agile Framework?

Scaled Agile Framework, also known as SAFe, is a knowledge base for organizations and teams that are focused on three principals; Teamwork, Portfolio, and Program. SAFe is designed to enable organizations to practice lean-agile principles, practices, and processes on an enterprise scale.

It is observed that large organizations tend to move slower than small enterprises. Also, larger organizations are not prone to changes easily. However, these large organizations require an Agile development program, which is where SAFe comes in. 

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This framework is a very powerful tool and is used by such organizations to solve the issues that have a negative impact on the success of projects.

Scaled Agile Framework provides principles for large organizations to become quicker in completing their projects and reaching the market. This framework comprises of fixed processes, principles and practices. Together they help organizations to implement Agile methods like Scrum and Lean. Hence, high-quality products and services are developed and delivered faster to the market.

The motive behind designing this framework is to provide flexibility to a team and to overcome the challenges a big organization faces when it practices Agile. SAFe is ideal for your organization if you are at the start of a transition to Agile. This is because if you are transitioning, there will be a gap and this framework will successfully bridge this gap due to its prescriptive, flexible, and customized approach.

The framework is well known for its lightweight and simple approach that the software development team of the company can easily adopt. It is designed to work on an organization portfolio, program, team levels, and value stream. The benefits of this framework are beyond words which is why nowadays organizations prefer opting for it. It is observed that the productivity of an organization increases by 20-50% as soon as this framework is implemented.

History behind SAFe

This famous framework was launched in the year 2011. Back then it was called the “Agile Enterprise Big Picture by Dean Leffingwell”, who belonged to the software industry and was well known for publishing the bestselling book named “Agile Software Requirements”.

Today, the Scaled Agile Framework has become one of the best and the most popular frameworks of time and is available for free.

How To implement The Scaled Agile Framework?

The implementation of this SAFe is based on a roadmap that comprises of a twelve-article series and an overview graphic. This article series and graphic describe a set of activities and strategy which has proven to be effective in implementing SAFe.

There are some steps that an organization should follow in order to implement this framework. However, each step can be customized according to your organization’s needs.

Step 1: Identify and correspond the need for change

Organizational change is prompted by many factors, such as the industry legislation shifts, best practices, and desired goals of an organization. In the initial stage, the company head needs to identify and communicate the reason for change to the Scale Agile Framework.  

This would also include mentoring and motivating the stakeholders that are involved, so that all the activities are aligned with the change that is desired.

Step 2: Recognize and train the agents for change

The second step should be to identify the right employees working in the organization that could serve as change agents and get trained as Certified SAFe Program Consultants. These change agents would be accountable for guiding business leaders and stakeholders for SAFe practices and processes.

Step 3: Bring the managers and executives on board.

Managers and executives are also needed to be brought forward and given training as they are the people who can influence and model behaviors of employees. This is important so that Lean practices and views are followed.

Step 4: Create a CoE

In order to have optimized companywide performance and ensure that Lean practices are followed, a center of excellence must be created. A CoE would help ensure that the entire organization is dedicated to Lean practices.

Step 5: Recognize the ARTs and value streams

In order to communicate and properly understand the importance of Scaled Agile Framework throughout the organization, it is important that Agile Release trains and value streams are identified.

Value streams are the values that are provided to its customers by a business. Whereas, ARTs are the teams which create solutions and optimize value. In other words, it is a combination of internal processes, technology and people that would give value to the business’ customers.

Step 6: Prioritize the goals and set out a roadmap

Prioritization of goals must be done and a roadmap should be placed out once you have established the organizational goals. This is necessary so that the overall vision of SAFe transformation is accomplished.

The implementation process includes selecting the value stream first, then selecting the ART, and then repeating this process.

Step 7: Define the ART launch parameters

In order to launch each agile release train, an organization must define its parameters, such as the deadlines, assemble teams, perform assessments for readiness, and train personnel.

Step 8: Train the teams

When ARTs are working in teams, it is important that each one of them understands their roles and has the skills that is required to do the job.

Step 9: ART Execution

You know your ART is ready to execute once they excel in some roles. These are things to do; daily standups, iteration planning, iteration reviews, and system demos, scrum-of-scrums, Art Sync and PO Sync, iteration retrospectives, and backlog refinement.

Step 10: Launch of more value streams and ARTs

Use the above manner to prioritize each ART and prepare for launching them, training teams, training ART execution, and giving the ARTs the required effort and time to succeed.

Step 11: Apply the steps to the portfolio level

When all the above steps are completed, you should apply them on a portfolio level and set a Scaled Agile Framework culture among the entire organization and improve the performance of the company.

Step 12: Improve and Sustain the company’s operational effectiveness

In order to sustain and improve the operations and effectiveness, the organization needs to seek ways and take advantage of the upcoming opportunities. This step will require the business leaders to operate in a Lean mindset continuously.

Scaled Agile Framework in JIRA

 Jira is a software with which you can use SAFe. There some specific terms that would not be present otherwise, such as Epics, Features, and Stories. These types of tasks could be outdone but this would make you suffer on the Team level, which is why you should have a new issue type named Feature. Each Feature should comprise of a statement that has benefits and acceptance criteria. This can only be available is you are using Jira custom fields.

The team level

The software covers the team level with Kanban and Scrum boards for certain teams. Each would have their own iterations and backlog.

Project scrum board backlog view in JIRA Software

Project scrum board backlog view in JIRA Software

Program level

When using Jira, you can use the BigPicture plugin to implement the SAFe program level. This plugin adds the following functionalities to the software; Milestones, Teams, Cadences, Metrics, Program Increments, Portfolio level, Program backlog, Programs in general, and a roadmap view. 

Moreover, the BigPicture plugin’s authors are the official partners of Scaled Agile, Inc, which is why they have made the tool to be as compliant as possible.

The biggest advantage of this edition is that it has a special mode of operation on the module of Roadmap. It is named as Large team mode and is a hundred percent true SAFe variant.

PI Planning Sessions

One of the essential rituals of SAFe is PI Planning. This session is also eased by Jira. The BigPicture plugin’s Roadmap module has two features that implement this area. It has a live sync mode that is recognized by a green icon and as long as it is active, it will show any changes someone makes on the screens. 

So now you don’t have to refresh, wait, or stitch HDMI cables to a large television to find out if there was some change made by someone.

Scaled Agile Framework vs. Scrum

SAFe, as well as Scrum, both operate under the principles and values of Agile. Both of them are similar to each other, however, there are some minimal differences. Scrum is known as a framework that is based on the principles and values of Agile. On the other hand, SAFe itself implements Scrum on an organizational level.

Scrum takes care of small, cross-functional, and collocated teams and is embraced by the Agile Teams. The framework has nothing to do with the middle management is constructed basically by the Scrum Team. However, it misses out on many important aspects that it shouldn’t.

A delivery version of the scrum lifecycle, source:

On the other hand, the Scaled Agile Framework deals with multi-geographic and big teams. It is embraced by an entire enterprise rather than just a team. The framework’s important tiers are Program and Portfolio management.

Both the frameworks have their differences and they depend on the way they decide to deal with their work. Scrum is usually used for organizing small teams whereas, SAFe is used for organizing an entire organization.

If you go further into details, Scrum is considered to be an iterative method used for product development which breaks a project in smaller segments so that they are completed by smaller cross-functional teams in a certain period. Scrum depends on 3 roles in order to plan, administer, organize, and optimize a process. These roles are:

  • Scrum Master: the one who looks after the job in the time of sprints.
  • Product Owner: the one who is accountable for planning, organizing, and making communication with the organization.
  • Scrum Team: a group of people responsible for the completion of the assigned jobs for each sprint.

Whereas, SAFe has 3 important parts, which are:

  • Lean Product Development
  • Agile Software Development
  • System Thinking

SAFe pays attention to the retrospect and releases planning, unlike Scrum. SAFe is developed in a manner that fills in the gaps which Scrum leaves. 

SAFe Advantages

  • SAFe is easily accessible.

SAFe is easily accessible by everyone as it is available on the website along with the diagram. The diagram gives you a clear picture of the framework and its configurations can also be viewed through just one click.

  • Quickly Codified.

Using the SAFe framework, you can quickly codify the Agile practices and master its concept. Even the definitions for an Agile team can be easily understood with just a click.

  • Extended Agile Practices.

The Portfolio and Program level are extensions of the Agile model. SAFe has codified the elements that were already existing, such as the features, user stories and epic hierarchy and made it convenient to be adopted by an inexperienced team. At the program level, novel concepts, such as the ART, were also introduced. This enabled users to use it easily without additional training.

  • Grounded Agile Practices.

SAFe uses a holistic approach at an enterprise-level whereas other frameworks focus on the development area only. It grounds the Agile practice at an enterprise level while embracing the concepts correctly.

  • SAFe is very specific.

This framework grounds codifies and extends the Agile practices at ease which are otherwise very complex. The framework also offers concepts, practices, and terms that are targeted and not general for developers.

  • A lightweight design.

The SAFe framework is very lightweight as the user doesn’t need to spend a lot of time in mastering the concept. The home page has certain graphics that would easily direct the user to a web page. 

While using the Scaled Agile Framework, organizations do not have to worry about its working knowledge. All they have to do is pick their talented resources and mention them for the SAFe training certification and the resources will be easily learned and applied.

  • No restrictions to use it.

You can read, use, and implement the concepts and ideas in the SAFe website without paying anything. But of course, SAFe is copyright protected, and stealing its details for the purpose of redistribution is a crime as per policy.

  • It is a practical framework.

SAFe offers one of the best approaches for developing the process instead of offering a generalized strategy for the development of the process. Users can write the process right away instead of waiting for training sessions for process development.

  • Completely available software development picture

The development picture can be clearly understood by the DevOps team and the User Experience teams and both are also given a role to play. This is because the framework includes enterprise architect and the role of the system which can be found under the architectural features, runway, and epics.

Both the product owners and managers have access to a chance to view the whole illustration of the development. SAFe is simple but not generalized. In fact, it is an exhaustive model which comprises of every component that is needed for the delivery and development of the software.

  • Upgraded constantly.

Last but not the least, the Scaled Agile Framework keeps getting a continuous upgrade. This is because it wants to keep evolving on a yearly basis. Every new version is updated on the basis of experience with the model and not just hypothetically.

SAFe Disadvantages

  • Pushes training and certification.

Organizations that are looking to implement SAFe are pushed with training courses and certifications for SAFe as the website of the framework is the only source of information regarding its proper usage. As compared to other methods, this approach of SAFe takes from the revenue of potential growth and implementation.

  • Very Prescriptive.

The SAFe doesn’t leave any room for any sort of customization on behalf of the organization as it emphasizes greatly on the use of its certain practices and rules. This can be very stifling for organizations unless they are ready to take the whole SAFe pill.

  • Agile is Manager-oriented.

SAFe doesn’t truly implement the Agile principles. Instead, it gives an illusion of the Agile and Lean principles by putting Agile on top of the organizational hierarchy that pre-exists. This lets the executives and managers make lots of important decisions that drop down the Agile ARTs and Teams. These must be changed into Stories which should be implemented by other team members and developers who understand the issues.

Core values of SAFe

The Scaled Agile Framework is based on four core values:

  • Alignment

The framework supports alignment. People who are on the SAFe team should give value to the goals of the team over personal responsibilities and tasks. embers of the Agile Release Trains should put emphasis on program objectives and vision over the goals of the team. 

Whereas, ARTs should pay attention on the Value Stream objectives above the ART objectives. The focus of the Value Streams should be on the value contributions in favor of the business portfolio and management should be attentive towards establishing a mission with as few constraints as possible.

  • Built-in Quality

The framework comprises of many built-in quality practices that aid in ensuring that all the elements that are in each incremental build are up to the same great standard of quality.

  • Transparency

Development on a large scale is a challenge. Sharing of facts and progress transparently on all levels establishes trustworthiness throughout the project. This helps the decision making to be decentralized and empowers employees.

  • Program Execution

Every Agile Release Train shall certainly generate value as the program level in the Scaled Agile Framework gives guidance and responsibilities to different member roles within the Agile Release Train in order to help with the value generation.

Scaled Agile Framework Diagram


Scaled Agile Framework Roles

The SAFe comprises of different roles such as:

  • SAFe Agilist: This person improves the process of adoption of a Lean Agile Mindset amongst the organization.
  • Release Train Engineer: This person ensures that the organization’s Agile Trains are on track.
  • SAFe Program Consultant: This is the agent who leads and implements the entire Scaled Agile Framework in the enterprise.

Apart from these roles, there are some other important SAFe roles as well, namely; SAFe Scrum Master, SAFe Advanced Scrum Master, and SAFe Program Owner.

Principles of Scaled Agile Framework

The framework is built on some key principles which are derived from the Agile and Lean principles. These principles are as follows:

  • Have an economic view in order to permit an optimal lead time. However, all that while providing the best value and quality.
  • Improvise systems thinking in all the development facets.
  • Predict technical and market variability by inspiring innovation and conserving choices.
  • Use fast and integrated learning cycles to build incrementally so that customer feedback is allowed and risks are reduced.
  • In order to ensure an economic benefit, milestones should be based on the evaluation of working systems and objective estimation.
  • In order to enable continuous flow, the amount of work in progress should be limited, batch sizes should be decreased and queue lengths should be managed.
  • In order to identify business opportunities and permit the corrective action as required timing should be applied, and synchronization should take place with cross-domain formation.- 
  • Unleash the intrinsic motivation for knowledge workers in order for them to reach their unseen potential.
  • In order to become more effective and agile, decentralized decision making should be considered.

SAFe vs. DAD vs. LeSS

The Scaled Agile Framework focuses on teamwork and provisioning amongst a huge number of agile teams. However, there are some other famous frameworks, such as Large-Scale Scrum and Disciplined Agile Delivery, that are used for scaling agile at bigger organizations.

The SAFe was developed by investing in 3 main knowledge bodies, known as:

  • Agile Software System development
  • Systems thinking
  • Lean Product development.

Moreover, it has been referred to as the most recognized scaling Agile practices approach. Whereas, the Disciplined Agile Delivery is based on the end-to-end lifecycle of products including the inception to delivery process. 

This framework is driven by some principles which are: delight customers, be pragmatic, be awesome, context counts, optimize flow, choice is good, and enterprise awareness.

DAD Agile Lifecycle

When should we use the SAFe?

  1. SAFe should be used when a team is ready to proceed with an Agile approach constantly through larger portfolios and multiple team programs.
  2. This framework could be used when different teams are foregoing their own way of Agile implementation but are constantly facing limitations, failures and delays.
  3. SAFe should be used when the teams desire to work independently.
  4. It can be implemented when the organization desires to have scale Agile across the enterprise but is not sure which roles would be required and what needs to change.
  5. SAFe shall be used when the organization has attempted to scale the Agile throughout the enterprise, however it is still struggling to align to acquire a single or consistent strategy throughout the business departments within different levels, such as from portfolio to program and team levels.
  6. Scaled Agile Framework shall be used when a certain organization requires improvement in its product development lead time and wants to find out if other companies have succeeded in scaling Agile with SAFe and how.

Challenges of SAFe

Adjusting with Long Planning horizons

For large organizations, the team for product marketing needs to strategize further ahead in order for their commitments in the markets to succeed. Otherwise, development teams refine their backlog up to 2 or 3 iterations ahead. The teams work with a high-level roadmap and plan by collaborating with the other teams with 3 months of work.

Keeping Agile at different levels of responsibility

Scaled Agile Framework gives out principles that are same as the cross-functional teams, to the teams that take care of many abstract levels of responsibility, that is portfolio and product. The framework aggregates a lot of disparate practices.

Dealing with delegated authority

On developments that are large in scale, an organization would want a view through the different team backlogs. SAFe separates product owners in the development organization.

Synchronizing the products that are to be delivered

SAFe acknowledges that the development team should be autonomous and free to design the way they work. However, at a scale of tens and hundreds, it can become very chaotic to self-organize. The teams that are working on the identical product, their deliveries shall become well synchronized so that they are released together.

Giving time for planning and innovation

The framework advises to include an iteration after launch so that the teams can recuperate their practices and are ready for the upcoming planning increment. The previous editions of Scaled Agile Framework also had the iteration to harden or stabilize the product before launching it. The challenge here for SAFe is that it has previously represented an anti-Agile or waterfall element. This is not included in the recent editions.

Testing and Quality in the Scaled Agile Framework

The Scaled Agile Framework is an architecture built on a solid foundation of years of deployment and so far it is the framework that has been the most documented. 

It is a pyramidal structure where at the base is the team level, followed by the program level which details how Agile Release Train teams collaborate to ensure all goes smoothly down the delivery pipeline, continuously tested, continuously integrated and continuously delivered. At the top of the pyramid, there is the portfolio level, which is there to ensure a top-down strategic manifesto.

As opposed to more traditional practices and roles and objectives, the adoption of a more Agile approach, allows organizations to leverage their resources in more adaptable ways. Built with the aim of marrying development and QA testing into as seamless a process as possible, the framework has been designed to be lightweight, super-flexible, and easily implemented.

"One of the core values of SAFe® is that quality is built-in.  Built-In Quality practices ensure that each solution element, at every increment, meets appropriate quality standards throughout the development,” write the authors of EuroSTAR eBook2018SeriesTesting and Quality in the Scaled Agile Framework for Lean Enterprises, source.

So basically, QA testing is equally prioritized as is the writing of the code itself. Along every step of the process, QA testers are empowered to "pair work" allowing them to become an essential bridge between developers and end-users, making sure each constituent's needs and goals are being met at every stage. The main function of this pairing is to allow for more efficient communication between each interested party.

Another concept of SAFe is the Definition of Done, DOD, a parameter that can evolve over time as pairs of teams become more tightly integrated as they continue to work together and enhance each other's capabilities.

When it comes to automating such testing, SAFe states that organizations should aim for a repetitive and hands-off build process that enables quick deployments in various environments. Testers can contribute by emphasizing the need for this and ensuring that the pipeline includes automated functional and non-functional regression testing.

Test designers and managers so well ingrained into the development process are there to share their insights and Quality Assurance experience and become essential players in Agile and Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment SAFe models.  

At the Program level, QA testers are empowered to design feedback loops between the various automated integration testing methods, ensuring tests are continuously updated to meet the expansion and development of any given project. Risk analysis, Root Cause Analysis, and other higher-level architectural considerations are all dealt with and allow for the removal of all common integration hurdles and obstacles that might present themselves.

Setting up a Quality Management System

One of the best features of adopting the SAFe protocol is that it calls for the creation of a Quality Management System, QMS, acknowledging the importance of quality in any organization's workflow and in fact that quality should be at the very center of all of the organization's processes. QMS is all about establishing compliance, making sure all QA testing procedures and frameworks adhere to all relevant regulations and quality assurance policies already in place.

Building a solid QMS into our clients' QA automated testing strategies is how Apphawks can really be of assistance to your organization.

As W. Edwards Deming explains, “Quality cannot be inspected into a product or service; it must be built into it” and this is what we here at Apphawks do: we place this philosophy at the core of our Lean-Agile Mindset and it is the utmost highest priority of all our teams, quality built in to everything we do.

What Drives Apphawks?

We here at Apphawks employ Test-Driven Development, TDD, an Agile practice of building tests and writing code executed, as nearly as possible, at the same time. With TDD, Apphawks can create large suites of developer-level tests quickly and on the fly and can start the process of automating these tests, freeing up our QA teams for other testing procedures.

By using SAFe, our Apphawks teams can leverage the power of this mighty framework to cover a wide array of not only different programming languages (JS, Python, etc.) but it also ensures the optimal design of unit tests which are the backbone to any Agile approach to development and allows for the scaling up to component tests which can then allow for the use of additional testing tools to be employed.

It is this scalable and modular architecture that pairs developers and QA testers into one unit of development that is what gives us here at Apphawks an edge over the competition (source).

Conclusion: “Keep it SAFe with Apphawks”

When it comes to designing our clients a solid and comprehensive testing strategy, Apphawks is at the front of the curve in employing the latest and greatest, most efficient and time and cost-saving, and industry-approved practices to make sure their projects are launched and running as smoothly as possible.

A value-focused and industry-proven method for scaling Agile practices throughout and at an organizational level, the Scaled Agile Framework is the answer to any and all our clients' questions, such as “how should we plan?”, “how much time can we save?” and “how can we enhance this enterprise’s development? its testing strategy? it’s test-driven development architecture?”

The easy answer to all of these important questions can be summed up by “Keep it SAFe with Apphawks!”

One the one hand, SAFe is a knowledge base to guide larger organizations and teams to not only meet their project goals but also in a bigger picture kind of way, their strategic goals which as we previously discussed must have quality assurance as the cornerstone of any strategy. 

On the other hand, SAFe is a framework growing in popularity every day and gives us here at Apphawks access to the ability to create and maintain Agile Testing Strategies that are centralized and highly customizable to cater and conform to our clients’ values. 

When your firm chooses Apphawks, it automatically chooses SAFe, it automatically chooses the leading industry practices that have been proven to decrease production time and costs, and it automatically chooses the most agile and versatile framework of developing and QA technologies, the most popular with contributors from all over the open-source landscape and the framework with the most trusted documentation.

The bottom line is when your firm chooses Apphawks, it ultimately chooses quality and 100% end-user satisfaction over everything else.

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Grzegorz Kłos
Grzegorz Kłos - Apphawks Co-founder
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