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Pros and Cons of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

In every consulting / training session, I get this question. “Can you summarize the Pros & Cons of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)?”.

Let me try to address this query through this blog. Let’s start with the Pros. These are the advantages that I have seen based on my SAFe implementation experience.

Pros of Scaled Agile Framework

  1. Shorter time to market (Release Cycle)

One of the best parts that Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) brings is reducing release time to market. 

The roof of the lean house is about Value and is defined as the “Shortest, sustainable Lead Time, with the best quality”. “Shortest Lead Time” is structurally injected into the system.

Few SAFe constructs like PI planning, incremental value delivery focus, Continuous Delivery pipeline, WIP limit, organizing the ART around value, prioritization of backlog based on WSJF and slicing of backlog based on size, etc enable shorter release cycle to market. In my experience, I have seen a reduction of the release cycle from 1+ years to 2 weeks.

  1. Business Agility Focus

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), brings a heavy focus on Business Agility. Here are a few examples. It brings in the dual operating system that enables customer centricity in a hierarchical organizational structure. While traditional hierarchical organizations focus on efficiency & stability, SAFe brings in more innovation.

Business Agility Focus

SAFe enables 7 core competencies that organizations can structurally build during SAFe implementation. 

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SAFe also enables assessment on 2 levels

  • Business Agility Assessment that helps the stakeholders to measure the overall progress.
  • SAFe Core Competency Assessment enables teams and ART to enable their technical and business practices to achieve the portfolio goals.
  1. Lean Thinking in Software Development

SAFe brings in Lean Thinking in product development. When the product development is purely a software development, it brings in an additional power of Lean Thinking that typically doesn’t exist in the software world like Systems thinking, removal of waste, WIP limit, value stream thinking, economic framework, lean start-up thinking, Lean-Agile Leadership, Innovation Focus, etc.

  1. Value Stream thinking

SAFe brings Lean Thinking to the entire organization. It brings everyone together and aligns them as ONE to deliver value to the customer. Functional boundaries are removed & all required people and teams are connected to deliver value. 

Value stream thinking

Both Operational Value Stream and Development Value Stream are addressed well to deliver the highest quality product in the shortest lead time.

Value Steam Map helps in removing the waste in the system so the value delivery can be much faster. 

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The above picture depicts the importance of identification and elimination of waste for the overall improvement of the end-to-end system.

  1. Magic in PI planning

“There is no magic in SAFe except maybe for a PI planning” – this is the Mantra about PI planning. These words are not overly written. They mean a lot. PI planning is the event where everyone comes together, plans together, commits together, addresses risks/dependencies together, and finally commits together. This brings a culture of absolute transparency, commitment, failure fast, etc. 

PI planning brings a great level of transparency in terms of product vision, architectural vision, roadmap, etc that helps the entire product organization to align to a common goal and deliver.

One primary goal of PI planning is “alignment”. This is achieved in every aspect – backlog prioritization, architectural alignment, alignment on dependencies/risks, alignment on common objectives to achieve by end of PI, etc are achieved.

When it is done in a common physical location you see in the picture, it brings a lot more alignment between teams, SMs, POs, and leaders.

  1. Built-In Quality thinking

SAFe drives quality right from the beginning of the backlogged flow, right from backlog management to release. 

In Waterfall, 65% of the defects originated from requirements. Having a smooth flow of backlog by having a vision, roadmap, effective refinement of backlog from epic to feature to user stories before the PI planning, continuous backlog refinement during iterations etc shifts quality to left and enables prevention and early detection of defects.

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Architecture vision, architectural runway, Set-based design, and Model-based systems engineering enable stable architecture, helping the organization to move away from the “cone of uncertainty”.

Code quality focus on every user story implementation, implementation of automation pyramid, TDD / BDD implementation in an automation strategy, and overall system quality through continuous system integration and incremental testing enables “Built-In Quality” into the system. 

Having a multi-layered Definition of Done helps build quality in every step of product development.

  1. Scripted SAFe implementation

Every step of SAFe implementation is scripted in the implementation roadmap. Many feel it is very hard to follow all the steps. For complex transformation, it is critical to have those scripts moved. For ex., conducting a Leading SAFe workshop for leaders as one of the early steps help Leaders understand the entire SAFe journey that their organization will go through. 

Scripted SAFe implementation

The Value Stream identification workshop helps identify the end-to-end value stream and finalize the ART that needs to be launched in the entire value stream. ART Launch preparation steps help prepare well for the PI planning. Launching 1 ART first, executing at least 1 or 2 PIs, and then launching more ARTs help experience SAFe implementation and implement the learnings in other ARTs. In my view, scripted implementation of SAFe transformation is a big plus.

  1. Focus on Innovation

One of the pillars of SAFe House of Lean is “Innovation”. SAFe focus on bringing innovation in the overall program execution. One of the ways it is done is through IP Iteration. IP stands for “Innovation & Planning” iteration.

Focus on Innovation

Many times, I get the question “How sure are we that Innovation culture is enabled by just providing time/space for innovation only in IP iteration?”. By asking such questions, we don’t provide any time for innovation for teams. This is one of the steps of bringing innovation into the system.

SAFe drives innovation through one of the core competencies “Continuous Learning Culture”. A few other elements of innovation are releasing a Minimum viable product (MVP) and validation, pivoting the product based on feedback without mercy or guilt, Gemba visits, building innovative people and culture, etc.

innovation culture
  1. Customer Centricity Focus

Customer Centricity mindset is created through design thinking activities like user persona, empathy map, customer journey map, user story map, etc.

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Ref: Scaled Agile

Design Thinking drives the desirability, viability, feasibility, and sustainability of the product during the product discovery and development stages.

Customer Centricity not only focuses on user research that drives product design but also on market research that drives product strategy like Market Rhythm and Market Events.

It is critical to bring the whole product thinking to fulfill customers’ needs.

  1. A multi-layered approach based on complexity

SAFe has 3 layers of implementation –
Essential, Large Solution, and Portfolio.
Each layer is designed to deal with a different level of complexity. 

A multi-layered approach based on complexity

For ex., Essential SAFe is a key and mandatory layer for an ART to be launched. A large Solution layer is used when we build a large & complex solution that needs multiple ARTs to work together to release 1 large solution. The complexity of each of these layers is very different, hence we can choose which layer is required and implement only that.

  1. Lean-Agile Leadership focus

It is critical to start the transformation journey from Leadership. The Foundation of the core competencies of SAFe is the “Lean-Agile Leadership” competency. SAFe transformation is top-down driven. First Leaders are trained, and coached on the transformation and then the teams. Leaders with a “Growth” mindset ensure the transformation is successful and sustained.

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Lean-Agile Leaders apply Lean Thinking as the basis for decision-making, practice lean-agile thinking daily, and teach the same to others. Without Lean-Agile Leaders, the transformation journey would fail.

Lean-Agile Leadership responsibilities cannot be delegated to anyone else including their direct reports. Hence SAFe implementation roadmap insists on training the leaders first before any of the other activities in the transformation journey.

lean agile
  1. Employee Engagement

“Decentralized decision making” is one of the core principles of SAFe. It enables the team to plan, commit, execute, and deliver on their own to a large extent. It helps the team make decisions. There is a framework that helps identify the decisions should team take versus the decisions to be taken by leaders. This enables the teams to be on their own and enables them to have ownership and decentralized culture.

Colorful Professional Comparison Features Table Infographic Graph
Ref: Scaled Agile

Providing autonomy with purpose, mission and minimal possible constraints unlocks the motivation of team members (knowledge workers).

What else improves employee engagement? Here are many examples – Incremental value delivery in every iteration, having clarity on what to achieve in every PI, the multi-layered definition of done to, continuous improvement through iteration retrospectives and Inspect & Adapt, built-in quality practices, focus on agile practices implementation in each team, providing time and space for innovation, bringing continuous learning culture as a competency, etc.

Cons of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

I have been implementing SAFe for the last 7-8 years and I really don’t see anything as major cons or disadvantages with SAFe. There are few negative opinions about SAFe that exist in the community. Let me address them one by one so we understand the challenge and we fix them appropriately.

  1. New Terms, new jargon

Yes, SAFe has many new jargons / technical terms like Agile Release Train, Release Train Engineer, Value Stream, Program Increment, PI Planning, PI Execution, Lean Portfolio Management, Solution Train, Enablers, Program Kanban, Solution Train Engineer, etc. It will be a bit difficult to understand them in the beginning.

However, based on my experience, if you implement SAFe as per the SAFe Implementation Roadmap, the organization learns these terminologies in 1-2 quarters. After 2 quarters, everyone is used to the new terminologies, and it becomes their new language.

SAFe 2
  1. Not for smaller teams

SAFe is not suitable for smaller teams, for ex., a team of 15-20 people. By design, it is not suitable for smaller teams. SAFe is for complex systems. It’s not a great idea to implement SAFe for the smaller size of teams.

As per SAFe, it will be beneficial to implement SAFe for teams of a minimum size of 50 people. However, if the size of the teams is around 30-40, you can still implement a few practices of SAFe. It is not recommended to implement SAFe for smaller than this size. It will be expensive and not required.

  1. Top-down, inflexible Framework

SAFe is top-driven because of the complexity involved in overall implementation. Having the whole implementation decentralized will create more chaos than bring results.

For complex scaling transformation, it is important to implement as per the SAFe implementation roadmap. It has been proven in hundreds of SAFe implementations that it yields results when the whole transformation journey is scripted.

  1. SAFe is against Agile principles

Agile principles are very focused on smaller agile teams. Hence, the purpose of values & principles is different from SAFe.

SAFe addresses scaling agility problems. The complexity, dynamism, and challenges are different from 1 small agile team. Hence all the Agile principles may not be applicable. Let me take one example. 

Principle 11: Best Architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. 

In large-scale system development, overall requirements and architecture cannot emerge from multiple teams working on the same product. It should come from product management and system architects so common guidelines are followed.

Agile focus is on Software development, however, SAFe focus is on system development, where Software is part of the system. Hence, having only Agile principles won’t work. Lean thinking is required.

  1. Administrative cost to the organization

SAFe brings new roles, structures, practices, etc, which increases costs to the company. Yes, it brings new roles like RTE, STE, System team, etc. It brings new processes & practices like PI planning, Inspect & Adapt, etc. It brings new backlog structures like Program Kanban, Program Backlog, etc.

These demand additional people, and additional tools to be deployed during SAFe implementation. In summary, it increases the cost to the company.

However, SAFe implementation enables the organization to have a frequent release, quality is built-in hence cost of quality is drastically reduced, customer satisfaction goes high, elimination of unnecessary waste, etc. The cost that the organization gains is multi-fold compared to the cost incurred due to the new roles, practices, etc.

  1. SAFe transformation is not always successful

Some of the SAFe transformations have failed to achieve results. This happens when there is a compromise made in the implementation plan. I have seen SAFe implementation failing and there are many reasons.

Here are a few reasons for SAFe transformation failure – Scaling without team & technical agility focus, Leaders are not bought into SAFe, not implemented based on SAFe implementation roadmap, wrong fitment into the roles of SAFe like ART Leadership (RTE, PM, Architect), not focusing on business agility (business results), implementing SAFe with a short-term project mindset and not with a long-term product mindset, etc.

If you notice the above reasons, the failure is primarily not due to the framework, but how it is implemented. 

Conclusion

Implementing SAFe as defined in the implementation roadmap will yield enormous business results. Compromising on 

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