Agility was born as a result of the publication of the Agile Manifesto in 2001 and has helped out to put in place a more pragmatic approach at the project management level. The main advantage in the eyes of the customers is the responsiveness in providing fast, progressive versions of solutions thanks to developments made in an iterative mode.
Looking back to many projects, it appeared that there were also limits to Agile: sometimes the focus was too much centered on the developments, as it did not sufficiently meet the management needs of projects or programs requiring managing a large number of (sub-)teams. Similarly, it did not deal with the budgetary aspects of organizations having put Agile in place. For example, the Scrum method does not provide information relating to the financial management of the projects and for which decisions or allocations must be taken quickly to align to the pace of the developments – whereas the budgetary exercises at the level of companies are often at an annual rate.
SAFe Agile is a framework which can be seen as a response to these needs. It sheds a light on how to manage these different points. It is able to provide familiar features to the concepts of agility and also move up a gear to a level that the organization could be managed and qualified in a 'full' Agile mode.
What does SAFe concretely bring?
One of the main contributions of SAFe is to be a framework that allows the implementation of an organization and its processes in order to manage a large number of teams working in Agile.
What are the changes from an existing Agile Organization?
On the Agile team level, changes, even if they have the merit to exist, are minor. We are very close to a Scrum method both in terms of the entrusted roles and responsibilities. The essential change is not there, SAFe does not revolutionize the "Team" approach.
The big change or evolution comes from the creation of several levels of coordination:
· One is dedicated to a program, encompassing several projects working around a common issue. This first level allows for management of up to 15 federated teams that are shared around a common theme (up to 125 members).
· The second and final level focuses on a portfolio of programs broken down into projects. Referred to as 'Portfolio' it brings together two important elements:
o It includes a stream dedicated to the strategy which gives a long term to the different teams and stakeholders
o The financial aspects of projects like the budget allocation are integrated. It therefore considers to spread, to adjust and/or to close funds from programs / projects of its portfolio, taking into account the constraints to agility.
How are the different projects embedded within the portfolios and programs?
At the material level, the element that best embodies the connection between the various projects and portfolios is what we call a "Release Train". This one reveals within the part called 'Programme', a way for defining the intermediate level within the hierarchy induced in the SAFe repository. It uses certain expressions and images dedicated to rail transport. Thus a 'Release Train' is composed of different teams who will deliver defined stages of solutions that bring value to the customer. This is in analogy with the wagons that make up a train (the teams) and passing through stations (project milestones) representing the steps of a (customer) journey. In addition, and this is of course part of the imaginary linked to the rail, meaning the notion of regular movement, the respect of a schedule, and punctuality evaluated for each of the trips to each station. As if the Release Train was animated...
On the timing level, SAFe introduced a major concept: time boxing. So according to this framework it is expected to deliver monthly increments and carry out a major release every 10 weeks. This calendar is the core of the methodology, it gives the tempo to all the tasks and will result in facilitating the activities of coordination by creating a ‘reference of common time’. It is efficient and gives customers the confidence to get at regular intervals an updated view on improvements with a strong added value.
What roles are added to the Scrum method?
SAFe creates primarily roles of coordination at various stages. We therefore have new roles related to the product management and new functions related to release management. It also adds expertise roles particularly on transversal areas such as architects, representatives of devops - unification of software development and administration of the IT infrastructure-. Finally, management roles will frame/liaise the teams with the portfolio management and/or the EPIC owner.
Similarity and uniqueness of SAFe compared to other Agile methods
SAFe is based on a set of backlogs that allow to prioritize the different developments. We have a growing backlog of detailed to-do’s coming from the EPICs (portfolio part), that relates to the ‘features’ for the program and finally to the ‘Users Stories’ at the level of the "Team".
SAFe has a unique approach by allowing teams to dedicate between 20 and 25% of their time on continuous improvement and/or on innovation topics. There are also discussions ongoing that are carried out on the existing system in seeking to secure and strengthen the sustainability of developments in production. Also, a ‘Hackhaton’ can be organized to demonstrate the feasibility and realization of certain concepts.
In conclusion, SAFe provides an answer as to how to manage Agile teams on large projects. It also allows to evolve the Organization to a practice of agility, which won't be limited or confined to (IT) teams dedicated to developing customer solutions. The use of a uniform methodology between very different roles and functions allow for efficient communication and reporting on progress.
Finally, the 'research' is an integral part of this methodology, which allows the business to also consider different options for the future.
About the Author
Louis-Marie Le Falher has 12 years of experience in the consulting business in major Luxembourgish organization, mainly in Private Banking industry. He was assigned on multiple projects – regulatory, fusion, migration – as project manager, project coordinator where he proved solid business knowledge and strong methodological expertise in business analysis, project management, process optimization and change management.