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Scaled Agile Framework: Understand SAFe and Its 4 Core Values

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If there’s one thing we can say about software development in the early 21st century, it’s that agile methodologies have taken the world by storm. Many organizations worldwide implemented agile, adopting one of its many flavors, such as scrum, XP, or lean software development. Many doesn’t mean all, though. Not all organizations were able to adopt agile, which is especially true for large organizations or enterprises. That’s why SAFe was created.

The Scaled Agile Framework attempts to help large organizations successfully adopt agile methodologies and reap the benefits of doing so. In this post, you’ll learn more about this framework and understand how its four values can help steer your organization in the right direction. Let’s get into it.

Starting at the Start: What Is the Scaled Agile Framework? Why Is It Important?

In 2001, a group of 17 experienced software consultants got together to sign the manifesto for agile software development. However, even before that, the values and principles we now collectively call agile methodologies were already in use because most of the manifesto signatories had been experimenting with novel ways to manage software projects since the mid or even the early ’90s.

Fast forward to 2020. Almost 20 years after the signature and publication of the agile manifesto, the so-called agile methodologies are a tremendous success. Innumerable software teams and organizations worldwide have been successful in adopting them and changing the way people think about software development and delivery. Unfortunately, not every implementation story is a happy one. Some organizations struggle when trying to undergo an agile transformation.

Large organizations struggle the most. Due to several impediments, the adoption of agile throughout enterprises isn’t as widespread as one might have expected by now.

That’s where SAFe comes into the picture. As the title of this post makes clear, SAFe stands for Scaled Agile Framework. It is a set of practices meant to help large organizations adopt agile methodologies. SAFe helps organizations to scale agile, solving the main obstacles that prevent companies from reaping the benefits agile methodologies can provide.

The SAFe Core Values: A Detailed Look

SAFe stands upon several key components, the most important of which are its four core values. The core values are the fundamental principles of SAFe. They help guide the decisions of all of the participant actors and are key to ensuring success in a SAFe implementation.

The four SAFe core values are alignment, built-in quality, transparency, and program execution.

Alignment

The first SAFe core value is alignment. What does that mean?

Simply put, alignment means that the whole organization has a vision of where it’s going, and it’s working to reach that goal. The whole company has a clear destination, and purposefully moves toward that destination.

When a company is misaligned, on the other hand, it’s unlikely to reach its destination, even if it thinks it knows where it’s going. What’s worse is that an organization lacking in alignment doesn’t respond well to changes in direction. Like a misaligned car that takes longer to steer, a misaligned company takes longer to respond to changes in the market, making it less competitive.

Additionally, misaligned companies struggle with remote work. Geographically distributed teams are part of how the world works now, but managing them can be quite challenging. This challenge is even greater if the company doesn’t have a clear sense of purpose and its departments aren’t all focused on that purpose.

As you can see, alignment is essential for modern organizations that want to stay competitive. It empowers them to deal with fast changes in the market, distributed teams, and other challenges present today.

Built-In Quality

The next item on our list is built-in quality. That makes sense: After all, don’t we all want quality in everything that we do? But, why not go with just quality?

The idea here is that every element in the product your organization is developing should reflect the highest standards of quality at all times. In other words, quality shouldn’t be an afterthought. Many organizations make do with just inspecting quality after the product—or the current iteration of the product—is done. That’s a “too little, too late” approach, though. There’s no way to force quality into a product after it’s finished. Quality has to be built into every step of the process.

Transparency

Transparency is an essential ingredient of a healthy organization. This is not just because it leads to healthy relationships based on trust, which makes for happier and more productive team members. That’s great, but it’s a bonus.

The main reason transparency is crucial is because it makes organizations more robust and resistant to failures. When things go wrong, trust and openness of information make troubleshooting and fixing problems easier.

Program Execution

The fourth and last SAFe core value is program execution. It stems directly from the agile manifesto, which, among its other principles, states that working software is more important than comprehensive documentation.

So, SAFe values systems working reliably and consistently above all. An organization can be incredibly transparent and aligned, but at the end of the day, that won’t save the organization if it fails to generate reliable value streams.

Achieving the Core Values of SAFe

Now you know more about SAFe and its four main values. The next question is inevitable: How do you achieve those values in practice?

Achieving Alignment

SAFe supports alignment through a series of practices. Strategic decisions start at the portfolio level and trickle down through the production and solution management and product owner roles.

Commitments are communicated through PI (Product Iteration) Objectives and Iteration Goals, which are vital to organizing the whole company in the form of what’s called an agile release train (or agile team of teams.)

Achieving Transparency

SAFe provides transparency through a number of mechanisms. In short, the key element is high visibility. Teams sign on to short-term commitments and then meet them. Artifacts, documents, objectives, and measurements of progress are freely available at all levels inside the organization. Everyone can understand how fast the teams are going, which increases transparency and trust.

Achieving Built-in Quality

Quality thinking in SAFe is organized around five main topics:

  • Flow
  • Architecture and Design Quality
  • Code Quality
  • System Quality
  • Release Quality

These are all intertwined. Organizations can achieve flow through test-first practices and a continuous delivery pipeline. SAFe organizations can achieve code quality through software engineering practices such as TDD/unit-testing, pair programming, collective code ownership, and coding standards. Additionally, architecture and design quality will help in achieving code quality.

Code quality helps to improve the overall system quality. Having a reliable CI/CD pipeline will also improve release quality, which contributes to keeping the organization in flow, completing the whole cycle.

Achieving Program Execution

Reliable program execution is mostly a consequence of the other values, particularly built-in quality. When you have reliable quality mechanisms in place, it becomes easier to detect, troubleshoot, and fix issues before they become critical, thus ensuring consistent system execution.

Reliable Software Delivery Through SAFe… and More

Today, you’ve learned about SAFe, its four core values, and how they can empower organizations to face the many challenges of the 21st century. Where do we go from here?

My advice is to continue learning. Delve deeper into each of the core values of SAFe to understand how you can implement them in practice. As luck would have it, you’re in a perfect place to do that. The Plutora blog contains many posts which you can use to educate yourself. By reading our posts, you can:

Education is just half of the puzzle, though. Adequate tooling is the other 50%. For instance, Plutora’s offering is a value stream management platform that can help ease your organization’s way into each of the four main values of SAFe. A value stream management solution gives you a lot of control over each step of your software delivery process. You gain complete visibility over your entire pipeline and can achieve a streamlined software delivery orchestration process.

Understanding SAFe and leveraging it can help your organization thrive in the changing world of software development. Thanks for reading, and until the next time.

Carlos Schults Carlos Schults

This post was written by Carlos Schults. Carlos is a .NET software developer with experience in both desktop and web development, and he’s now trying his hand at mobile. He has a passion for writing clean and concise code, and he’s interested in practices that help you improve app health, such as code review, automated testing, and continuous build.