In the ever shifting and unpredictable market landscape, Fortune 500 companies increasingly use the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) to optimize their value streams and meet evolving customer demands. Yet, despite considerable investments of time, resources, and budget, organizations still struggle to achieve their strategic objectives and expected return.

The common reality they all face is their inability to measure flow within their value streams accurately. This critical blind spot leaves companies vulnerable to diminished productivity and efficiency, leading to missed opportunities and reduced competitiveness. This trend underscores the urgent need for proactive measures to overcome these obstacles and pave the way for successful outcomes.

The latest SAFe update, SAFe 6.0, highlights Value Stream Management (VSM) and Flow Metrics as critical concepts for increasing business agility. In particular, SAFe 6.0 Flow Metrics are the critical success factors for effective measurement and flow acceleration, paving the path for increased value and business impact.

In this article, we explore the prominent role SAFe Flow Metrics play in measuring and optimizing value stream flow throughout the software delivery process.

How to Use Flow Metrics in the SAFe® Cadence

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Accelerating flow using SAFe® 6.0 Flow Metrics

At the core of SAFe®’s flow based system is to deliver a consistent, uninterrupted flow of value to customers in an efficient timeframe. To achieve this, organizations must continuously measure flow across teams and tools from start to finish. This helps identify and remove bottlenecks, leading to increased speed and progress. The best way to do this is by measuring SAFe Flow Metrics.

Flow Metrics are based on the principle that all software-related work should generate value for the business. They offer a reliable way to measure the value streams of software delivery against business outcomes. There are six SAFe Flow Metrics. The first five Flow Metrics are based on the Flow Framework® created by Planview CTO Mik Kersten.

  • Flow Velocity® – How fast is value being delivered?
  • Flow Efficiency® – Is upstream work holding up delivery?
  • Flow Time – Are we reducing time to market?
  • Flow Load® – Are we balancing demand and capacity?
  • Flow Distribution® – Are we investing in both value generation and business protection?
  • Flow Predictability – How are Teams, ARTs, and Solution Trains delivering business value against their planned objectives?

CIOs can leverage Flow Metrics within their SAFe implementations to drive immediate and measurable results across three key areas:

  1. Responding quickly to emerging technology trends

    Enterprises can improve time to market by optimizing speed and flow through end-to-end software delivery value streams. By measuring Flow Time, organizations can determine how fast they are delivering value to their customers and take action to reduce lead times. At the same time, Flow Load can help anticipate when work in progress (WIP) exceeds the value stream’s delivery capacity.

  2. Increased productivity in a hybrid or remote work environment

    In today’s work environment, teams must demonstrate that they can collaborate efficiently and deliver customer value, whether in remote, hybrid, or in-person settings. Flow Velocity and Flow Efficiency are Flow Metrics that give business leaders visibility into productivity and efficiency within the software delivery lifecycle. Leadership can develop a model for further experimentation with remote or hybrid environments by baselining productivity.

  3. Acquiring, developing, and retaining talent

    Finding, hiring, and keeping top talent requires tools and systems that let them focus on strategic work and leaders who support this approach. Using Flow Distribution, business leaders can identify the proportion of effort spent on defects, technical debt, and risk relative to new feature development. By adjusting Flow Distribution, organizations can provide employees with more meaningful work that keeps them engaged while identifying opportunities to deliver increased business value.

For more on using Flow Metrics to maximize return on investment, download our CIO’s eGuide to SAFe.

Optimize your value stream with SAFe 6.0’s flow accelerators

In SAFe 6.0, eight flow accelerators eliminate impediments and streamline your value stream. These flow accelerators are described below with examples of how to utilize Flow Metrics within each one and visualize these metrics using value stream analytics software, Planview Viz®.

1. Visualize and limit WIP

There are several harmful effects when teams and Agile Release Trains (ARTs) are overloaded with excessive workloads. Prioritization becomes unclear, leading to frequent context switching that scatters focus and reduces productivity. Moreover, it results in longer wait times for new functionality.

Finding the right balance between demand and capacity is crucial to avoid worker burnout and the organization’s inability to respond to the market fast enough. Flow Load plays a pivotal role in assessing this equilibrium.

Flow Load is a WIP measurement calculated by measuring all actively worked-on Flow Items, also called a work item. This includes features, defects, risks, and technical debts within a value stream in active or wait states.

Leveraging Flow Load proves invaluable in multiple ways:

  • It helps identify the optimal Flow Load for your value stream (i.e., where high Flow Velocity and low Flow Time coincide).
  • It facilitates collaborative efforts with business stakeholders to balance demand and capacity.
  • It provides insights into how WIP influences business outcomes, such as employee engagement and happiness.

When it comes to optimizing the flow of value in a value stream, visualizing Flow Load is essential for organizations to identify and eliminate impediments. Software solutions like Planview Viz automate the visualization of Flow Item types and identify neglected WIP.

Planview Viz highlights neglected WIP broken down by Flow Item type.
Planview Viz highlights neglected WIP broken down by Flow Item type.

2. Address bottlenecks

Bottlenecks arise when the demand for resources, such as systems, materials, or personnel, exceeds the available capacity, disrupting upstream processes and causing delays downstream. Identifying and resolving build up in the system should be a primary focus as it can prevent the value stream from operating optimally.

Bottlenecks can be resolved by measuring and utilizing Flow Efficiency, which is a measure of waste within a value stream, specifically in terms of the amount of Flow Items in a wait state. It is calculated by dividing the number of days a Flow Item spends in an active state by the combined number of days it spends in active and wait states.

Flow Efficiency provides the following valuable insights:

  • It shows where there is waste build up in the system, indicating longer wait times for work and revealing bottlenecks.
  • It indicates how well other Flow Metrics are being used. For example, improving automation can reduce Flow Time, correlating to an increase in Flow Efficiency.

In Planview Viz, a feature called the Bottleneck Finder quickly pinpoints bottlenecks in your process by analyzing your value stream data and Flow Efficiency. This visualization helps you determine how active work truly is.

Planview Viz’s Bottleneck Finder compares the number of resources available to perform work in a given state.
Planview Viz’s Bottleneck Finder compares the number of resources available to perform work in a given state.

3. Minimize handoffs and dependencies

Handoffs occur when knowledge, responsibility, action, and feedback are divided, resulting in dependencies and wait times that disrupt the flow of value. This then introduces waste and can lead to rework and potential delays due to errors in knowledge transfer.

The most effective solution is establishing agile teams and ARTs equipped with comprehensive knowledge, resources, skills, and decision-making authority. This empowers them to facilitate an uninterrupted end-to-end flow of value, mitigating handoffs and dependencies.

Flow Efficiency, a measure of waste in the value stream, is helpful in this scenario as it helps identify where handoffs are taking longer to complete. It calculates the ratio of active time to wait time relative to the total Flow Time. By measuring and visualizing Flow Efficiency using Planview Viz, organizations can address knowledge gaps, assimilate process improvements, and drive strategic business outcomes. The efficacy of implemented strategies can then be assessed by re-measuring Flow Efficiency.

Planview Viz’s Flow Efficiency dashboard provides visibility into waste within value streams, enabling teams to identify areas for process improvement.
Planview Viz’s Flow Efficiency dashboard provides visibility into waste within value streams, enabling teams to identify areas for process improvement.

4. Get faster feedback

In SAFe 6.0, learning is the cornerstone for driving improvement and propelling product development. The objective is to obtain feedback as early as possible. However, getting early feedback is challenged by factors such as limited customer access, development delays, and infrequent integration.

When work flows smoothly and quickly through the value stream, it reaches the appropriate stakeholders and customers sooner, allowing for timely feedback and iteration. Customers experience tangible benefits, such as product improvements and satisfaction, while the business realizes value through cost savings or revenue generation.

Flow Time is an important metric to measure and optimize for faster feedback. Unlike in manufacturing or DevOps, where the time measured revolves around completing tasks for a specific function, Flow Time in SAFe 6.0 uses a customer-centric measure of time. It measures the elapsed time it takes to complete work, from when it enters the value stream to when it is completed and in the hands of the customer. It includes both active and wait states, including weekends and off-hours.

In Planview Viz, organizations can easily measure the effects of process improvements on Flow Time after customer feedback is obtained and incorporated. This pull-based flow prioritizes swift and valuable delivery to customers by surpassing large, infrequent releases.

Planview Viz allows you to track release cycles with Flow Time and quickly incorporate customer feedback.
Planview Viz allows you to track release cycles with Flow Time and quickly incorporate customer feedback.

5. Work in smaller batches

Working in smaller batches facilitates faster feedback, which is critical for continuous improvement. By reducing the size of work items completed, agile teams can swiftly gather and evaluate feedback. Smaller batches also limit WIP by minimizing the number of requirements in the system, reducing variability, and promoting accelerated learning.

Flow Velocity measures how many Flow Items of each type get completed over a given period. It helps organizations measure how much value teams deliver and whether delivery is accelerating, decelerating, or staying constant. It also serves as a yardstick in determining the optimal batch size.

To optimize the handling of smaller batches, agile teams should focus on reducing transaction costs and invest in automating the continuous delivery pipeline, encompassing infrastructure, automation, continuous integration, and more.

Automation enabled by integration tools like Planview Hub plays a vital role, as it helps streamline repetitive tasks and ensures a consistent and reliable delivery process. By embracing smaller batches – and optimizing for Flow Velocity – teams can achieve greater efficiency and continuous improvement in their work.

Planview Viz automatically calculates how much work has been completed over a time period.
Planview Viz automatically calculates how much work has been completed over a time period.

6. Reduce queue length

Long input queues introduce delays, information decay, and waste, and hamper the timely delivery of new features, regardless of team efficiency. Minimizing queue length is vital for faster feature delivery and a consistent flow of value, as it reduces waste and improves predictability.

Flow Time provides a clear and customer-centric measure of how long it takes for work to move through the value stream, from initiation to delivery. Organizations can evaluate the impact of their investments on time-to-value by analyzing trends in Flow Time. It is particularly appealing to business leaders and product owners as it reveals the duration of a request once approved, providing valuable insights for decision-making and process optimization.

In Planview Viz, the Flow Modeler feature unveils an accurate visual representation of the complete workflow within the entire value stream, from initial customer request to customer delivery. By building the value stream map directly from the data in your tools, it calculates the duration of work as it progresses through the value stream and reveals where bottlenecks are emerging in real-time. It provides a source of truth of how work flows from idea to outcome, helping to ensure critical work is always on track.

The Flow Modeler feature in Planview Viz allows you to see the end-to-end flow through each stage of the software delivery lifecycle, from ideate to operate.
The Flow Modeler feature in Planview Viz allows you to see the end-to-end flow through each stage of the software delivery lifecycle, from ideate to operate.

7. Optimize time “in the zone”

Being in a state of deep focus and engagement, often known as “being in the zone,” fosters heightened creativity, productivity, happiness, and fulfillment. This mental state requires uninterrupted focus time, autonomy, competence, and connection with others. Traditional work environments with functional silos, frequent interruptions, and excessive WIP impede individuals and teams from entering the zone. To maximize productivity, SAFe 6.0 emphasizes establishing a continuous flow of value and creating an environment that allows uninterrupted time and space for complex tasks.

Excessive WIP amplifies context switching and wait times, leading to decreased efficiency and velocity. By measuring all the Flow Metrics, an agile team can effectively reduce context switching and its negative impacts, enabling them to operate more efficiently and deliver value more rapidly.

8. Remediate legacy policies and practices

On the journey towards Agile transformation, enterprises must actively identify and address legacy policies and practices obstructing flow. These practices are outdated and often hinder progress. There are many examples of such barriers, including, among others, fixed scope, resources, time constraints, quality management systems based on waterfall methodologies, and unnecessary technology standards.

By acknowledging and eliminating these obstacles, organizations can cultivate a culture of continuous improvement and unlock the full potential of Agile practices. This proactive approach empowers enterprises to optimize flow, drive innovation, and embrace the transformative power of Agile principles.

A simple way to visualize SAFe Flow Metrics

Flow Metrics are crucial in measuring and improving flow in the Scaled Agile Framework. Complementing quantitative metrics with qualitative data ensures alignment with customer needs and timely delivery of solutions. Flow Metrics provide a comprehensive view of value flow through the development value stream, allowing organizations to gain valuable insights and make informed decisions around responding to change, delivering value, and retaining talent through increased engagement.

Automating the collection and analysis of these metrics becomes effortless with Planview Viz. To learn more, watch an on-demand demo of Planview Viz to see how easy it is to visualize your Flow Metrics.