Understanding the SAFe Approach - Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)
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Understanding the SAFe Approach - Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

Understanding the SAFe Approach - Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

Image Attribute: Mobile software development laboratory in The Estonian Information Technology College / Wikipedia

In an attempt to reap the benefits from the evolving set of agile methodologies, a number of frameworks have been proposed to provide guidance for scaling agile development across the enterprise. One of the commonly known models is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe).

SAFe is developed with the aim to organize and managing software development in large enterprises. It comes with a package of supporting tools, books, training materials, and certification schemes supported by substantial marketing effort. SAFe has received significant attention in the agile community, including some criticisms. Albeit the sound lean principles at the core, many raised concerns about the extent of which the agile principles and values are represented, the large-scale planning, the top-down approach, and the strong emphasis on process rather than people. [1, 2] Whilst these criticisms, a number of companies that have applied SAFe reported on their experience and claimed to have achieved significant benefits.

There is two different types of SAFe 4.0 implementation, 3-Level SAFe and 4-Level SAFe. 3-Level SAFe is for smaller implementations with 100 people or less, or multiple such programs that do not require significant collaboration. 4-Level SAFe is for solutions that typically require many hundreds of practitioners to develop, deploy and maintain.

3-level SAFe

The framework is separated into 3 levels, namely team, program, and portfolio levels. The boundaries between these three levels are arbitrary and serve as a model for abstraction of the scope and the scale between levels.

Chart Attribute: Scaled Agile Framework® Enterprise Big Picture v3.

Chart Attribute: Scaled Agile Framework® Enterprise Big Picture v3.

Description: This chart presents a SAFe Enterprise Big Picture, which is a visual representation of the framework to serve as both an organization and a process model for agile requirements practices. [3] SAFe aims to integrate existing bodies of work of Scrum, XP, Lean, and Product Development Flow.


All SAFe teams are agile teams. There is more than one type of team, for example, there may be a Systems Team and architectural teams, and the more common Agile development teams which are called "Agile Teams" in the SAFe methodology. This team is responsible for maintaining the development environment used by the Agile Teams and for testing solutions end-to-end. Typically, it consists of 5-9 people who work in two-week sprints using XP (Extreme Programming) methods, and have the skills they need to define, develop, test and deliver value. 


The "Program" level aligns the teams with a strategic vision and roadmap for each investment theme. At this level, business and architectural features are defined and prioritized in the program backlog. A major concept introduced at this level is the "Agile Release Train", which provides cadence and synchronization with respect to their iteration boundaries, integrated with deliveries and working systems in every two weeks.

Together, 5-10 SAFe teams create an "Agile Release Train", with typically 50 to 125 persons, including the development teams and other stakeholders.

The Program Increment (PI) is a larger, quantum measuring point, which typically occurs on a cadence of 3-5 development iterations, followed by one Innovation and Planning (IP) Iteration. Each PI concludes with a demo of all the functionality that has been developed through the course of the PI. This is accompanied by an Inspect and Adapt session that includes root cause analysis and identification of systematic improvements.

The Innovation and Planning iteration supports the dedicated time for PI system demo, innovation, and face to face PI planning. This describes the basic development cadence, which synchronizes teams to a common mission and cadence, and focuses on the frequent integration of the full system. However, Teams and Programs can release functionality at any time the market demands, including continuous delivery.


The highest level in SAFe is the portfolio level, where programs are aligned to the enterprise business strategy along value stream lines. 

A portfolio is a collection of value streams which are budgeted via lean-agile budgeting mechanisms. It is connected to the enterprise strategy by a set of strategic themes. A portfolio kanban system is used to capture and analyze epics - large,cross-cutting initiatives that affect multiple Agile Release Trains.

Value streams are long-lived series of system definition, development, and deployment steps used to build and deploy systems that provide the continuous flow of value to the business or customer. This level is needed for enterprises, which require governance and management models. The essence lies in achieving a balance between four potentially conflicting goals.[4]
  • Maximizing the financial value of the portfolio by identifying value streams using Kanban systems,
  • Linking the portfolio to the strategy of an organization through investment themes,
  • Ensuring that the scope of activities is feasible by measuring appropriate metrics, and
  • Balancing the portfolio on relevant dimensions by defining and managing the business and architectural epics, which run across value streams. Epics capture the largest initiatives in a portfolio. Business epics describe functional or user-experience epics, while architectural epics capture the technological changes that must be made to keep the systems flowing.

4-level SAFe

SAFe 4.0

On January 3, 2016, Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®). Version 4 was released. The 4-level SAFe includes an additional Value Stream level between the Program and Portfolio levels. This is designed for organizations building large systems, although any enterprise can benefit by incorporating from various value stream constructs in their implementation. It incorporates learning from all prior releases—including the SAFe for Lean System Engineering development branches—into a single, more scalable and more modular framework. 

The Big Picture can be expanded or collapsed to three or four levels. The default view is the three-level version (3-Level SAFe), which is simpler and lighter weight than its 3.0 predecessor. Three-Level SAFe is backward compatible with SAFe 3.0, so those currently operating with 3.0 can continue to do so, or migrate easily to this new version.

SAFe 4.5

On June 26, 2017, Scaled Agile, Inc., announced the general availability of SAFe® 4.5 for Lean Enterprises. This release reflects the latest in Lean-Agile thinking, more visibly incorporating DevOps and the Continuous Delivery Pipeline.

Key enhancements in SAFe 4.5 include:

  • Additional flexibility with four new configurations. SAFe 4.5 supports the full range of development environments, from the simplest to the most advanced. The configurations include Essential SAFe—a simpler entry point for organizations that want to start practicing and realizing the benefits as soon as possible—as well as Portfolio SAFe, Large Solution SAFe, and Full SAFe options that address varying degrees of organizational size and complexity.
  • Faster innovation with the Lean Startup Cycle and Lean UX. This fosters an environment where feedback is introduced as early as possible into the development process so that it can be used to test ideas and make decisions more quickly.
  • Accelerated new feature delivery with Scalable DevOps and Continuous Delivery Pipeline. 
  • The centerpiece of the 4.5 update, this new mechanism enables the organization to seamlessly define and deliver solution elements to the end user, without handoffs, excessive external production, or operations support. The result is a more flexible and stable production environment that is able to deliver value more frequently.
  • Improved guidance with the new SAFe Implementation Roadmap. Designed for the business to achieve early wins as well as sustainable long-term gains, the Roadmap describes a series of steps an enterprise can take to ensure an orderly, reliable, and successful SAFe roll out.

Recent Outcomes:

Since the introduction of the SAFe in 2011, a number of companies have applied the framework and published their experiences on SAFe adoption as white papers or technical reports. [5] These reports state improvements in several directions such as higher ROI, 20–30% faster time to market, 40–50% decrease in post release defects, better alignment with customer needs, and increase in productivity of 20–50%, within short periods of time, that is, in the order of months. The reports also outline the challenges such as staying releasable throughout the development lifecycle due to the late discovery of defects and defining the right level of requirement detail at the right time during the lifecycle. The studies claim that a proper preparation, orchestration, and facilitation of distributed program events are essential for successful release planning. The studies also report with confirmation that geographically distributed teams experience lower productivity because of lack of alignment and solid program execution.

The Book:

A new book written by co-authors Richard Knaster and Dean Leffingwell is the first comprehensive how-to guide for practicing and implementing SAFe, the world’s leading framework for enterprise agility. Published by Addison-Wesley Professional, “SAFe 4.0 Distilled: Applying the Scaled Agile Framework for Lean Software and Systems Engineering” illustrates how SAFe can quickly improve time to market and increase productivity, quality, and employee engagement.

By Richard Knaster, Dean Leffingwell 
Paperback: 384 pages, dimensions: 7" × 9" 
Publisher: Addison-Wesley Professional; 1st edition (March 31, 2017) 
Language: English ISBN-10: 0-13-420942-7, ISBN-13: 978-0-13-420942-5 


[1] Elssamadisy A. Has SAFe cracked the large agile adoption nut? http://www.infoq.com/news/2013/08/safe#  

[2] Jeffries R. Issues with SAFe, http://xprogramming.com/articles/issues-with-safe,  

[3] Reifer DJ, Maurer F, Erdogmus H. Scaling agile methods. IEEE Software 2003; 20(4):12–14.

[4] Rautiainen K, von Schantz J, Va J. Supporting scaling agile with portfolio management: case Paf.com, HICSS; 2011, 1–10.

[5] Scaled agile framework: case studies. http://www.scaledagileframework.com/case-studies/