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Developed by the creators of the Scaled Agile Framework®, Essential SAFe is the direct response to organizations searching for maximum simplicity and team or program support when transforming to an Agile organization. This lightweight but comprehensive version of SAFe is designed to ensure sustainable success in an environment where many organizations are approaching SAFe cafeteria style: adopting some practices and principles and forgoing others – generally those that are more technical.

Program board to support implementing Essential SAFe
Program board to support implementing Essential SAFe

The recent release of SAFe 5.0 collapses Essential SAFe from two levels (team and program) to just one level: Essential. This adjustment shows where the market is in implementing SAFe, as organizations have generally moved beyond team-level Agile and now need a comprehensive look at how to implement and grow Agile Release Trains (ARTs).

While it’s true that SAFe is a flexible framework, it’s also designed as a system. That system requires several core components in order to remain functional and effective. The following elements are essential; they cannot be abandoned without undermining the SAFe system. Let’s take a look at what makes up Essential SAFe.

Lean-Agile Principles

At the heart of any SAFe® Agile transformation is a holistic adoption of Lean-Agile principles. Lean-Agile principles provide a mental model that enables sustainable delivery, improvement, and growth across the enterprise.

Principles like Deliver Fast by Managing Flow and Optimize the Whole enable the entire organization to function from the same mindset, based on the same set of values. These values enable continuous improvement and encourage respect across the enterprise, two critical components of any successful transformation.

Lean-Agile Leaders

Implementing SAFe® involves introducing new practices, activities, and principles, and to do so successfully, teams need to understand the vision driving the change. Cultural shifts are never easy, but leaders well-versed in Lean-Agile principles can provide guidance, structure, and vision when it is needed most.

Lean-Agile leadership needs to come from the very top; it’s up to executives to set the tone for the transformation and demonstrate effective leadership by example.

Agile Release Trains and Agile Teams

One of the essential elements of SAFe® is the basic structure for organizing teams around value delivery; this begins with the Agile Release Train (ART).

“In Essential SAFe®, the Agile Release Train is the primary value construct at the program level. It’s a self-organized assembly of teams that works together to plan, execute, and measure the impact of product solutions.”

ARTs are organized around an organization’s primary value streams and are made up of Agile teams. They work toward a continuous flow of incremental releases of value (defined as customer value), in a timebox called a Program Increment (PI).

Flow epics to ARTs that have the capacity to absorb the work
Flow epics to ARTs that have the capacity to absorb the work

Cadence of Value Delivery

In Essential SAFe®, Agile teams apply Scrum and/or Kanban practices to frequently deliver fully integrated increments of value. To enable a more proactive approach to solution development, SAFe® Agile teams rely on a steady cadence of value delivery to receive and incorporate feedback from customers as quickly as possible. Using timeboxes allows SAFe® organizations to synchronize efforts across teams and ensure consistent alignment with customer needs.

Program Implement Planning

A Program Increment (PI) Planning event is the largest plan-do-check-adjust (PDCA) learning loop in SAFe. It’s a cadence-based interval for building and testing the value of a system increment.

PI Planning is face-to-face planning with a standardized agenda where teams use the organization’s vision to plan their work for the next PI (usually 10-12 weeks). PI Planning is crucial to implementing Essential SAFe effectively.

Visualize cross-team planning and dependencies in real-time on one board
Visualize cross-team planning and dependencies in real-time on one board

System Demonstration (Demo)

In Essential SAFe, the system demo is the primary measure of ART progress and is held at the end of each iteration. It’s a demonstration of the system being built in that ART, and is the primary means for gathering immediate, ART-level feedback.

During this ceremony, the team must demo a working piece of software (or other type of deliverable for non-technical teams). What’s demoed cannot be what’s still in process.

Inspect and Adapt Workshop

This is a significant event held at the end of each PI, designed as a regular time to reflect, collect data, problem solve, and work on improvement actions needed to increase the velocity, quality, and reliability of the next Program Increment.

IP Iteration

Most organizations adopting Lean/Agile practices are doing so with one goal in mind: faster, more sustainable value delivery. Since the Program Increment is a primary driver of value delivery, it’s tempting for organizations to jump from PI to PI to ensure a constant flow of value delivery.

Of course, with every Agile team relentlessly focused on value delivery, that leaves little time to come up for air and discuss improvement, innovation, and growth. This is why the Innovation and Planning Iteration – a regularly scheduled, cadence-based time for important, growth-minded activities that are difficult to fit into a continuous, incremental value delivery system – is important. The IP iteration ensures that innovation and thoughtful planning are built into every enterprise system.

Architectural Runway

When Agile was being used almost exclusively by software development teams, the practice of Emergent Design, an evolutionary approach to discovering and extending design only as necessary to implement the next step, was an excellent way to maintain agility and focus.

As Agile practices matured and spread across enterprises, it became apparent that emergent design could not sufficiently or effectively support the complexity of enterprise-level system development. More intentional architecture was needed to pave the way for supporting upcoming customer needs by building in key technical capabilities.

In Essential SAFe, intentional architecture and emergent design together create the architectural runway needed to create and maintain large-scale solutions.

Relying upon an architectural runaway enables organizations to keep program velocities high, while avoiding the downfalls of trying to implement emergent design at scale:

  • Poor solution performance
  • Bad economics
  • Slower time to market

Digging Deeper into SAFe Lean Agile Principles

The section above was a brief overview of what Essential SAFe is and the elements needed to build and implement Essential SAFe in an organization. In the next section, we’re going to dive a little deeper into the roots of the entire SAFe framework, the Lean Agile principles, and why they are the bedrock of the framework. Without considering and building on these principles, your SAFe transformation and implementation will likely fail, whether you’re just implementing Essential SAFe or are building beyond Essential SAFe to Portfolio SAFe.

The following ten SAFe Lean Agile Principles (compiled by Scaled Agile, Inc) comprise an essential element of a SAFe system to inform and inspire the roles and practices of SAFe. Here, you’ll find a summary of these ten principles.

1. Adopt an economic perspective

As decision-making moves from management levels to the team level, it’s essential that everyone adopt an economic perspective. Only though this lens can they understand how the choices they make impact the economics of the business. Lean Agile follows two practices to achieve optimal economic outcomes: Deliver early, deliver often and apply an economic framework.

As long as there’s a basic level of quality, an early market entrant will be more valuable to a customer than a feature-rich product delivered later. And the customer’s investment compounds over time – the earlier they receive it and the longer they use it, the more value they get from it. It’s a win for the customer. Organizations must deliver early and deliver often to stay ahead of the competition and delight the customer.

Similarly, it’s a win for the producer. As time goes on, the product’s features become common. Potential customers increasingly see cost as the differentiator and look for the best deal. The ability to charge a premium erodes, cutting into profitability. Delivering early means higher gross margins and profitability.

SAFe portfolios should use a framework to align team members with the financial objectives of the portfolio and to act as a set of guidelines to inform decision making. Applying a successful economic framework involves:

  • Using a streamlined budget process where guardrails guide spending decisions
  • Understanding the repercussions of tradeoffs throughout the build process – before they’re implemented
  • Bolstering solution development teams with external suppliers
  • Prioritizing jobs in ways that optimize economics

2. Think: systems

The second of the SAFe Lean Agile Principles says that systems thinking takes all aspects of a system and its environment and incorporates them into the design, development, deployment, and maintenance of the system itself. Three aspects of systems thinking can help in the development journey:

  • The solution is a system. Whether a software application or an airplane, the object that delivers customer value is a system. Team members must understand its boundaries and how it interacts with the systems around it.
  • The enterprise, people and processes building the system are also a system, which must also be managed.
  • Everyone must comprehend the full value stream and continuously work to optimize it.

3. Assume variability; preserve options

Developing innovative solutions is a process riddled with uncertainties. Market and technical variabilities – both of which can impact outcomes – exist throughout the development process. Many developers try to reduce or eliminate them, but the key is to manage the variabilities while preserving options for as long as possible.

One way to preserve options is with set-based design. Here, developers begin by considering multiple design options. As economic and technical tradeoffs are made, less suitable options are eliminated. This process keeps more design options open longer, and that translates into better outcomes.

4. Build incrementally with fast integrated learning cycles

In a Lean approach, a range of requirements and design options are considered as the solution is built in increments, one on top of the last until the solution is complete. Integration points between increments can be used to establish technical viability as well as to market-test, solicit customer feedback, or to validate usability.

It is at these points that teams ensure the evolving solution addresses the intended business needs and, when necessary, pivot in ways that will deliver better value to customers. More frequent points mean faster learning, more indicators that expectations are at risk of not being met, and more opportunities to make necessary adjustments.

5. Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems

While phase-gate milestones commonly associated with the waterfall development process seem like a logical and sequential process, the final outcome often fails to meet expectations.

More reliable outcomes can be achieved through the use of critical integration points described above in Principle #4. By using them as an opportunity for stakeholders of all flavors to measure, assess and evaluate, you have a regular series of natural opportunities to ensure you’re on track to deliver as anticipated, whether from a technical, financial, or other perspective.

Gather insights across teams to identify areas of opportunity for continuous improvement
Gather insights across teams to identify areas of opportunity for continuous improvement

6. Visualize and limit work-in-progress, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths

Achieving continuous flow allows organizations to deliver new features in the shortest time possible. There are three rules for achieving that flow:

  • Visualize and limit work in progress (WIP): Nobody likes to feel overwhelmed at work. Too much WIP means priorities are lost, people are scattered, focus and productivity are reduced and wait times are increased. Use a Kanban board to illustrate WIP, bottlenecks and to gain a realistic view of what can be achieved.
  • Reduce the batch sizes of work items: Smaller batches traverse the system faster, and a smaller number of items in the batch reduces variability. The side effect is faster learning.
  • Manage queue lengths: Just like at the DMV, the longer the queue, the longer the wait time, no matter how efficient the people behind the counter. Reduce the queue to reduce the wait time.
In-app, out-of-the-box reporting helps teams understand bottlenecks to improve their processes
In-app, out-of-the-box reporting helps teams understand bottlenecks to improve their processes

7. Apply cadence (timing), synchronize with cross-domain planning

Business and uncertainty seem like strange bedfellows. But in the right balance, they complement one another. Business needs a degree of certainty to operate. But it also needs a degree of uncertainty to inspire innovation and maintain flexibility.

Agile strives to create and sustain this balance through cadence and synchronization. Cadence’s rhythmic patterns can turn what’s uncertain and undetermined – like waiting times – into something predictable. It can also help to limit batch sizes and WIP. Cross-domain planning synchronization pulls the business and technical aspects of a solution together to be integrated and evaluated simultaneously.

8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

As the subject matter expertise of many workers far surpasses the expertise of their management teams, the role of managers shifts toward enabling and motivating. To achieve this:

  • Use the SAFe system to enable cross-functional communication, fast feedback, continuous learning, economics-based decision making, and more engaged participation.
  • Don’t expect that you can drive innovation and engagement by simply throwing money around – or by threats, intimidation, and fear.
  • Do expect that you can use autonomy and self-direction to drive motivation in ways that support your business objectives.
  • Create an environment of candid but supportive feedback, where teams and management work together to negotiate, problem solve, compromise and commit.

9. Decentralize decision-making

Of course, it would never be a good idea to decentralize strategic business decisions. Those types of decisions require expertise not found within most teams. You don’t want your developers making high-level financial decisions any more than you want your CFO writing code.

Decisions that should be decentralized would include those that:

  • Are every-day events, such as program backlog prioritization
  • Are time critical, such as customer emergencies
  • Require local context to understand the technical complexities of a situation

Decentralizing non-strategic decisions can help reduce delays, improve flow, and boost innovation.

10. Organize around value

While this is not a new Agile concept, “organizing around value” is getting much more focused attention in the SAFe 5.0 framework. This principle provides the groundwork for organizations to shift from organizing around project delivery to organizing around value delivery.

To organize around value, businesses must keep a customer-centric focus and organize into value streams with Agile teams and trains. To do this correctly, organizations must establish a strong Essential SAFe foundation to then build into Portfolio SAFe to plan, fund, and deliver as a value stream(s).

“The ability of organizations to organize around value, and also reorganize around new flows of value as needed, is a key driver for business agility.” -Scaled Agile, Inc.

Getting Started with Essential SAFe

As outlined above, Essential SAFe is a good starting point for organizations looking to build beyond Agile teams and plan, coordinate and align at a higher level (ART). Essential SAFe is also an effective way to lay the groundwork for organizations seeking to expand Agile down the road to organize around value streams.

With Essential SAFe, practitioners will understand the roles, events, and mindset needed for successful implementation. To do Essential SAFe well, organizations must include both Agile Release Train roles, like Product Management and Release Train Engineers, along with Team Roles, which includes the individuals on the Agile teams, the Product Owner, and the Scrum Master.

Organizing the people in these roles around value creates a great foundation to build upon. The events or ceremonies outlined in Essential SAFe provide a structure or cadence for the ART and teams. PI Planning, system demos, inspect & adapt workshops, and IP iteration planning will keep the ART healthy and keep the teams connected to business outcomes, ultimately helping to achieve business agility.