Scaled Agile Framework Version 4.6: What Is It and Should You Adopt It?

May 29, 2019

In 2010, leaders of forward-thinking enterprises began asking themselves how they could adopt software development methodologies such as lean, kanban, and scrum on a larger scale. So a software industry veteran named Dean Leffingwell set out to answer this question. He eventually came up with the scaled agile framework (SAFe), and the first version was released in 2011. SAFe subsequently became popular amongst practitioners implementing lean-agile methods in large organizations.

This article will explain how SAFe acts as a governance layer on top of team-level agile practices; whom SAFe benefits the most and why; and how SAFe is continually evolving by including new concepts such as value streams, making it crucial for large organizations.

SAFe as a Governance Layer

Agile requires small team sizes—typically no more than 12 people. Given that large organizations have hundreds, if not thousands, of employees, implementing agile will likely result in the formation of a huge number of small teams. So how do these large organizations coordinate the efforts of multiple small teams to help them drive toward a collective goal—all while still keeping the teams agile?

SAFe has two key features that help answer that question:

  1. teams are always the foundation, and

  2. they must work together toward a common goal.

Teams Are the Foundation

Agile teams of five to 11 people often perform the bulk of the work that delivers customer value. SAFe recognizes that, which is why it provides a three-layer structure (now four layers in Version 4.6). And the team layer is the foundation.

This structure spells out the governance of the various teams from C-level management on down. Even in the new four-layer structure, the basic premise of having teams as the foundation remains intact.

Within this structure, the higher levels coordinate and direct the efforts of the lower-level activities. And the lower levels’ efforts merge to fulfill the goals set at the higher levels. At the same time, modern agile practices are given room to be adopted at the team level. This is how SAFe maintains a balance between agility in software development and the bigger scale of a large organization.

SAFe Ensures All Agile Teams Act Toward a Common Goal

For proper governing, collaboration and alignment across all teams is crucial. SAFe caters to those needs by having useful concepts such as agile release train (ART), program increment (PI) planning, and vision.

Take, for example, ART. It spells out how smaller teams should plan, integrate their efforts, and even learn together. The key is to prevent teams from operating independently. This is similar to the oft-heard refrain in software development against cowboy coders. Therefore, through ART, SAFe provides a channel for all teams to pool their contributions and opinions toward a common objective.

SAFe Benefits Large Organizations

We all probably have seen it. Without a proper structure, blindly adopting agile practices can do more harm than good. This is where SAFe truly shines.

Originally, SAFe was designed for organizations that want to adopt agile practices while maintaining alignment across teams. The target audience was the typical 50- to 150-person team. In this way, SAFe boldly introduced the additional structure required for agile to work in large-scale organizations.

Why SAFe Works for Large-Scale Organizations

In large organizations, even simple processes become more complex due to the scale. So with higher complexity comes a greater need for explicit structure.

Pure agile methods alone aren’t enough to transform large organizations. Hence, SAFe adds a more prescriptive top-down framework to help large organizations adopt agile methods. Experienced practitioners may claim that SAFe isn’t really agile. But pure agile isn’t the aim. The aim is to make large organizations more agile than they were.

And large companies recognize the benefits, too, which is why SAFe has grown in popularity—so much so that it’s outgrown its original audience. It now attracts even Fortune 1000 companies. This has prompted SAFe to evolve further and release version 4.6 to accommodate these giant organizations.

SAFe Continues to Evolve

Why weren’t earlier versions of SAFe good enough for Fortune 1000 companies? Well, you’ll recall that SAFe was initially designed for 50- to 150-person organizations. But Fortune 1000 companies often have thousands of people working just in IT. With numbers that large, SAFe needed new concepts to help these behemoth corporations with their large-scale and complex end-to-end processes become more agile.

Large Solution Layer

One such new concept is the large solution layer. Usually, Fortune 1000 companies build large-scale systems that are beyond the scope of a single ART. So they need a separate layer of governance from a large solution team to coordinate the different programs that are working toward a unified experience.

As an example, consider Microsoft’s launch of Office 365, the cloud-based version of desktop Office. Clearly, users greatly benefit when they can seamlessly switch between the two platforms. However, large corporations would tend to treat desktop Office and Office 365 as separate programs. A large solution overseeing both programs would help align them, giving both programs enough autonomy for greater efficiency.

End-User Value

Of all the changes introduced in version 4.6, the most exciting one is the new focus on delivering end-user value. According to Scaled Agile Framework’s website, lean-agile frameworks such as SAFe now focus fanatically “on continuous value delivery, where the value is only achieved when the end user, customer, or internal business process receives the business benefit of some new solution.” Organizing around value delivery is so central to SAFe version 4.6 that Scaled Agile Framework declares in the same article that “identifying and understanding the various flows of value is the most critical step—indeed, the starting point—for improving overall enterprise performance.”

This new emphasis on delivering end-user value means value streams are added to SAFe, typically showing up on the portfolio level of the SAFe structure. Value streams help align the lower levels (large solution, program, and team) on the business benefits that the organization wants the end user to receive.

Why Identifying Value Streams Comes First

SAFe started out as a solution for introducing agile methods to large companies while aligning them to the organization’s objectives. Now, SAFe’s latest focus on value streams overlaps nicely with Plutora’s focus on achieving faster application delivery via data-driven improvements. In fact, one of Plutora’s data-driven approaches identifies bottlenecks across the value stream.

Increasing value streams’ visibility helps companies successfully implement SAFe and deliver end-user value. However, you shouldn’t jump straight into SAFe without first identifying your value streams. And visualizing value streams in complex processes can be a challenge. (For help, check out Plutora’s article covering 10 key steps to value stream mapping.) Give your organization the best chance of success by identifying your value streams with Plutora and implementing SAFe Version 4.6 today.

Continuous Value Delivery

Ultimately, software is all about solving problems and delivering value. Your customers won’t care how much effort you’ve put into your product if they don’t derive any value from it. SAFe version 4.6 rightfully puts the focus where it should be: on the users and the value they receive.

You don’t have to adopt the full configuration of SAFe. Their website describes an array of four configurations you can choose from based on your company’s specific needs. So feel free to tinker. But with SAFe’s new focus on continuous value delivery, my recommendation is this: adopt some configuration of SAFe version 4.6 for your organization.

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