Implementing Agile, Lean, and DevOps Practices at Scale Alongside Systems Thinking

According to Mik Kersten, “Those who master large-scale software delivery will define the economic landscape of the 21st century.” The validity of this dramatic assertion can be seen simply by looking at the mix of companies that are already dominating today’s economy. The challenge is equally relevant to mid-and large-size enterprises. Solve this problem and thrive, or the alternative is to fail and fade away.

The purpose of the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) is to provide a path for organizations to scale Lean-Agile methods. Doing so provides the principles, structure, and practices to achieve a new level of widespread organizational agility. According to Gartner, “implementing SAFe can deliver significant, measurable business value in complex initiatives, by coordinating the work of multiple teams. However, many software engineering leaders lack a clear understanding of the keys to a successful implementation.”  We’ll have more to say about this last Gartner observation later in this article.

SAFe Goes Global

SAFe is a system for implementing Agile, Lean, and DevOps practices at scale alongside systems thinking. Created in 2011, SAFe is in its fifth iteration and, according to its creators, has been adopted by more than 20K enterprises globally with more than 800K practitioners trained in more than 110 countries.

Ultimately, SAFe is about creating a lean flow of developed value from business strategy through to the customer, at scale, with rapid and transparent feedback on results along with the ability to adapt.  

Scaled Agile Framework Overview

The Scaled Agile Framework comprises a set of principles, practices, and competencies that enable mid-sized and larger organizations to achieve business agility. In the words of SAFe’s inventor, Dean Leffingwell, this means, “the entire organization – not just development – is engaged in continually and proactively delivering innovative business solutions faster than the competition.” Fundamentally, SAFe is a freely accessible knowledge base available at Scaled Agile also provides a rich set of training courses and consulting support to facilitate the dissemination and application of the knowledge base. Ultimately, SAFe is about creating a lean flow of developed value from business strategy through to the customer, at scale, with rapid and transparent feedback on results along with the ability to adapt.  

SAFe is all About Scale

Core to the Scaled Agile Framework is the ability to scale the benefits of Lean-Agile delivery to large and very large multi-team solutions. Agile’s roots focus on the team; SAFe builds on core Lean and Agile principles and practices to define a framework for collaborative, high-quality, and iterative delivery involving multiple teams working concurrently on solutions. It is by far the most widely adopted Lean-Agile scaling framework in use today.

SAFe Configurations

The Scaled Agile Framework is presented in four “configurations”.

Essential SAFe: Essential SAFe is the most basic configuration. Its key construct is “Agile Release Train” (ART) — a multi-team virtual organization for delivering solutions consisting typically of 10-20 persistent teams and 50-125 people. In addition to being cross-functional, these teams focus on collaborating to deliver value. The ART includes all the people and systems necessary to provide end-to-end products or services as a “development value stream.” The teams execute in cadence and, after every 4-5 iterations, review, reflect, and re-plan as an integrated team, including Product Managers and Business Owners.

Fig1-SAFe 5 - Essential
Figure 1: This Essential Configuration graphic, with icons linked to further resources, can be found at

Figure 1 displays the Essential Configuration. The vertical lines in the center-right represent the teams moving through iterations and periodically pausing to review, reflect, and re-plan at the ART level. To the left are the roles involved, and around the iteration graphic are several other icons representing vital structural elements and practices applied in the Essential Configuration.

Large Solution: The Large Solution configuration (shown in Figure 2) is a collection of multiple ARTs and can be required for delivering very large, complex solutions. SAFe identifies additional practices essential to the Large Solution configuration as well. An in-depth discussion of external suppliers is an example. Often, delivering large solutions requires external partners, and SAFe explains the importance of including these suppliers in the cadence and overall lean flow of the total solution and how this can be done. Other considerations specific to the Large Solution configuration are also defined.

Fig2-SAFe - Large Solution
Figure 2: The Large Solution Configuration graphic, with icons linked to further resources, can be found at

Portfolio SAFe: The Portfolio Configuration, in Figure 3, includes managing investment and monitoring the entire portfolio of systems across all ARTs. It is here that the connection between business strategy and execution is made explicit. Lean-Agile methods specific to this configuration enable rapid, collaborative, and transparent translation from strategy to implementation and collaborative budgeting. Frequently, key business and IT leaders and SMEs review progress and adjust investments, as needed, based on actual results and environmental change.

Fig3 - SAFe 5 - Portfolio

Figure 3: The Portfolio Configuration graphic, with icons linked to further resources, can be found at

Full SAFe: Full SAFe is the complete configuration and implementation of SAFe, consisting of the combination of Essential, Large Solution, and Portfolio configurations. As shown in Figure 4, this configuration is most appropriate for portfolios that contain several Large Solutions that, in turn, each include several Essential SAFe configurations.

Fig 4-SAFe 5-Full
Figure 4: The Full SAFe Configuration graphic, with icons linked to further resources, can be found at

The Competencies are possibly the most undervalued part of the Scaled Agile Framework.

SAFe Foundations: If you look at the bottom of each of the configurations, you will see a grey-colored band with various icons in white. These are the “Foundations” of SAFe: the fundamental principles, values, and behaviors that underlie all practices in the framework. These are what the practices are derived from and based upon. As Scaled Agile notes, SAFe is intended to be tuned to fit each enterprise environment.

SAFe Competencies: The blue circles on the left-hand side of the configuration graphics (Figure 1-4), plus the one at the bottom within the Foundations – Lean-Agile Leadership – make up the SAFe Competencies. The Competencies are possibly the most undervalued part of the Scaled Agile Framework. Each blue circle describes a core area of competency required to execute the practices. Each competency has three key elements, and not all Competencies are necessary within the Essential Configuration. But achieving Full SAFe requires all seven Competencies.

Note that the Lean-Agile Leadership Competency is placed at the center-bottom of the framework at the heart of the Foundations. This placement emphasizes the importance that Scaled Agile places on this competency. Success with the framework depends on Lean-Agile Leadership.

Realizing the Benefits of SAFe

Scaled Agile makes the critical point that SAFe cannot be mechanically layered into a company. It must be applied in context, and with a good understanding of its activities’ intent and the principles that make them work. As Scaled Agile notes, poor practices do not scale. This is why the seven competencies surrounding the SAFe Palette are what Scaled Agile focuses on when they describe SAFe. A five-minute video overview of the framework, produced by Scaled Agile, is almost entirely about the seven competencies.

These competencies, along with the mindsets, behaviors, values, and principles in the SAFe Foundations, must be established for the framework to operate successfully.

SDLC Partners’ Take on SAFe

At SDLC Partners, we are aligned with this view of SAFe. Moreover, we see SAFe as an impressive compilation of the challenges that must be addressed, and the skills to be applied, to scale successfully. There is a lot to SAFe, but there is a payoff for the diligent learner who persists to the point of seeing the underlying simplicities upon which it is based.

Whether or not you chose to apply all, or the exact practices that SAFe lays out to address each of these challenges, it remains that SAFe can act as a powerful tool for understanding the disciplines and values that must be brought to bear to succeed with Lean-Agile at scale. As such, it can be used to diagnose and improve your development value streams and plot a course toward business agility, which is the desired result.

This is exactly how we at SDLC use and apply the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). SAFe can help us help clients understand their current capability for Lean-Agile delivery and plot a course forward. We can also train and collaborate to create a roadmap for your organization. Our ranks include many certified SAFe practitioners, including SAFe Scrum Masters, as well as senior SAFe consultants who play lead roles in working with clients to shape and execute their SAFe roadmap while transforming their organizations into lean enterprises.

Art Moore
Art Moore

Arthur “Art” Moore leads the Process Optimization and Design Thinking Solutions teams for SDLC Partners. His career spans software development, practice management, methodology development, training and strategic consulting, in...

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