Posted on 

May 30, 2022

What is Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)?

Karl Tippins
Content writer

Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe, is an interactive methodology designed to empower businesses that use Agile to do at scale.

While practising Agile can bring a vast range of benefits to businesses, it can also be hugely challenging. Practising the SAFe methodology can give your business the flexibility and ability to manage these challenges and achieve huge gains throughout your business processes.

Businesses that practice SAFe often achieve:

  • Quicker lead times in bringing new products to market.
  • Productivity improvements.
  • Increases in product and work quality.
  • Higher levels of employee engagement and satisfaction.

It is vital to understand that SAFe is not one standalone methodology. Instead, it is a comprehensive knowledge base comprising best practices, integrated principles, and success patterns.

The SAFe catalogue is free to access and use, too, making SAFe one of the world's most popular frameworks. You can adapt and transition your business processes to SAFe both for software development and in a context of general project management. If you are familiar with the Jira tool, you probably already work with at least some elements of SAFe without realising it!

SAFe is continually evolving and improving. Your business can always adopt the latest best practices and continue to enhance your processes—the current version of SAFe, 5.0, released in January 2020.

At present, SAFe consists of three levels.

What are the Three Levels of Scaled Agile Framework?

These three levels, in order of seniority in a business or project context, are:

  • Portfolio.
  • Large Solution.
  • Essential.

Portfolio and Large Solution are the highest levels of the framework. These are often the processes used by business leaders to help determine top-line objectives and goals and to make strategic decisions.

Using SAFe can help stakeholders, among other things, create effective roadmaps for projects and manage change. Once those at the Portfolio or Large Solution levels determine the broader vision of a project, this feeds down to the Essential level.

Colleagues at the Essential level are then accountable for delivering the goals assigned to them. Previous versions of SAFe had four levels, with what is now the Essential level split into Program and Team levels. Many elements of Essential in SAFe are identical to Scrum. SAFe breaks down time into two-week "sprints." After each sprint, leaders can assess if projects and team members are delivering value and opportunities for improvements. The SAFe methodology also calls for reviews after every ten weeks/five sprints. This framework provides a consistent flow of work for software development or project teams. Still, it doesn't mean you have to release new software to this schedule. Your chosen business timings would always take precedence for finalization of any project.

Using SAFe in a software development context may also determine the makeup of your teams and lead to the creation of new job roles in your company.

You do not have to implement every level to adopt and practice SAFe in your business successfully.

Which Businesses Use Scaled Agile Framework?

As well as businesses like Atlassian, who produce the SAFe-based Jira collaboration tool, many companies use the SAFe methodology and have seen immense success in doing so.

While the Scaled Agile website’s customer stories highlight many of them, here are some of the best ones with tangible outcomes:

  • Sony’s PlayStation Network team saw $30 million in cost savings and reduced planning time by 28% using SAFe.
  • Philips cut its release cycle time from 18 to six months.
  • Telstra decreased product defects by 95%.
  • Mitchell International reduced the time to respond to customer requests by 76%.

As you can see, these examples cover various aspects of business operations. From making your teams more productive to saving you money and improving customer service, practising SAFe can deliver hugely positive outcomes.

How Can You Implement Scaled Agile Framework in Your Company?

Scaled Agile has created an exceptional library of articles to guide you through the process of implementing and transitioning to SAFe in your company.

Scaled Agile suggests a 12-step implementation roadmap:

  1. Reaching the Tipping Point. This is the acceptance that it is time for your business to make a change and transition to SAFe. Once you reach this point, the remaining steps should follow logically.
  2. Train Lean-Agile Change Agents.
  3. Train Executives, Managers, and Leaders.
  4. Create a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence.
  5. Identify Value Streams and Agile Release Teams (ARTs).
  6. Create the Implementation Plan.
  7. Prepare for ART Launch.
  8. Train Teams and Launch the ART.
  9. Coach ART Execution.
  10. Launch More ARTs and Value Streams.
  11. Extend to the Portfolio.
  12. Accelerate.

While it is possible to conduct SAFe training in-house, you and your team members should ideally undergo formal SAFe training and certification. Gaining formal qualifications will give you the best opportunity to maximize your use of SAFe. You will also instil confidence in clients who will recognize these qualifications as a symbol of excellence.

If you choose to implement SAFe, it may also be worth hiring expert SAFe consultants and change managers to help you manage the transition.

Potential Pros and Cons of Scaled Agile Framework

One of the biggest strengths of SAFe is that it will tell you and your business precisely what to do, and when to do it. It will supply a full framework for your company. As noted earlier, you have the flexibility to adapt as much or as little of it as you wish. It is most common for businesses to adopt the full framework. However, they often find this is overkill and adds unwanted complexity and costs, thus going against the primary principles of Agile.

The prescriptive nature of SAFe can also be a potential drawback, as it may rob you of the ability to be as flexible as you might like with decision making around processes.

Strengths of SAFe:

Weaknesses of SAFe:

  • Can require significant upfront planning and definition of processes. Some experienced Agile practitioners view SAFe as not pure Agile.
  • SAFe is very much top-down rather than driven more by a team-led perspective.

Should You Use Scaled Agile Framework?

If your business is only just starting to use Agile, SAFe is ideal for helping this transition and giving you a robust framework within which you can operate.

However, if you're already practicing Agile and have confidence and experience in doing so, you may find SAFe to be too prescriptive and constraining to your processes. In this case, you may be better off transitioning to a framework like Disciplined Agile (DA). DA and similar frameworks rely on your business having a full understanding of Agile but give you the flexibility to customize processes as you see fit. 

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