What is SAFe?

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) helps businesses address the significant challenges of developing and delivering enterprise-class software and systems in the shortest sustainable lead time. It is as an online, freely revealed knowledge base of proven success patterns for implementing Lean-Agile software and systems at enterprise scale.

SAFe synchronizes alignment, collaboration, and delivery for large numbers of Agile teams. Scalable and configurable, SAFe allows each organization to adapt it to its own business needs. It supports smaller-scale solutions employing 50–125 practitioners, as well as complex systems that require thousands of people.

An extensive body of knowledge, SAFe describes the roles, responsibilities, artifacts, and activities necessary to implement Lean-Agile development. To illustrate SAFe concepts, this website features an interactive Big Picture graphic, which is a visual overview of the framework and is the primary user interface to the knowledge base. Each icon of the image is clickable, offering access to an article on that topic, as well as links to related information.

Improving System Development Outcomes

Developed in the field, SAFe has evolved as a proven approach for developing complex systems and software in a Lean-Agile manner and draws from three primary bodies of knowledge: Agile development, systems thinking, and Lean product development. It helps enterprises answer the following types of questions:

  • How do we align the enterprise toward common business and technical goals? How do we make better decisions to improve our economic outcomes?
  • How do we deliver new value on a predictable schedule so that the rest of the business can plan and execute? How do we improve the quality of our solutions and delight our customers?
  • How do we scale Agile practices from the team to the larger program and business unit, and across the enterprise, to deliver better results?  How do we organize teams around value so that our programs deliver it effectively and avoid the delays and bureaucracy inherent in a traditional, hierarchical structure? How do we manage and minimize dependencies between teams, programs, and value streams?
  • How do we create an environment that fosters collaboration, innovation, and relentless improvement? How do we unlock the intrinsic motivation of the people who do this work? How can we change our culture so that it tolerates failure and rewards risk-taking and continuous learning? How can we help our teams improve without getting in the way?
  • How do we know that the new ways of working are more effective? How do we know what our Agile teams are doing and measure how well they’re performing?

By adopting SAFe— and applying its well-described set of values, principles, and practices— the enterprise can address these questions and realize greater business and individual benefits.

SAFe Configurations

There are four out-of-box configurations that create its scalable and configurable approach, as illustrated in Figure 1.

  1. Essential SAFe
  2. Large Solution SAFe
  3. Portfolio SAFe
  4. Full SAFe
Figure 1. Configurable SAFe

Essential SAFe

The Essential SAFe configuration is the most basic configuration of SAFe. It provides a starting point for implementing SAFe, and describes the most critical elements needed to realize the majority of the framework’s benefits. It consists of the Team and Program levels, and Foundation, as illustrated in Figure 2.

The Team Level (see bottom of Figure 2) describes the structure and activities of the Agile teams that build the solution. Each team has dedicated individual contributors, covering all the roles necessary to build a quality increment of value for an iteration. Teams can deliver software, hardware, and any combination. Learn more.

The heart of SAFe is the Program Level  (see top of Figure 2) where Agile teams, key stakeholders, and other resources are dedicated to an important, ongoing solution mission using a construct called the Agile Release Train (ART). The ART is a self-managing and organizing team-of-Agile-teams that plans, commits, and executes together. Agile teams are dedicated to one, and only one Agile Release Train (ART). Each is responsible for defining, building, and testing stories from their backlog in a series of time-boxed iterations. Learn more.

For more information, read the Essential SAFe guidance article here.

Figure 2. Essential SAFe Configuration

Large Solutions SAFe

The Large Solution SAFe configuration is intended for enterprises that are building large and complex solutions that require the contribution of multiple Agile Release Trains and Suppliers, but do not require the portfolio considerations.This is common for industries like Aerospace and Defense, and Government, where they have very large programs, but do not need the constructs of the Portfolio level.  Large Solution SAFe consists of Essential SAFe and the Large Solution level, as illustrated in Figure 3.

With the Solution Train organizational construct, the Large Solutions Level helps enterprises that face the biggest challenges—building large-scale, multidisciplinary software, hardware and complex IT systems.  Building these solutions require additional roles, artifacts, events, and coordination. Enterprises that build largely independent systems or those that can be built with a few hundred practitioners may not need this level. Learn more.

Figure 3. Large Solution SAFe Configuration

Portfolio SAFe

The Portfolio SAFe configuration is for enterprises that build multiple solutions, which have minimal dependencies on one another, but require portfolio-level coordination, strategy,  investment, and governance. This configuration adds the Portfolio Level, as shown in Figure 4,

The Portfolio Level provides the strategy and investment funding for people and resources,  Agile program guidance, and Lean governance. The portfolio level aligns the enterprise strategy to portfolio execution by organizing the Lean-Agile Enterprise around the flow of value through one or more development value streams and provides the basic budgeting and governance mechanisms necessary to assure that the investment provides the returns the enterprise requires to meet its strategic objectives. In the large Enterprise, there may be multiple SAFe portfolios. Learn more.

Figure 4. Portfolio SAFe Configuration

Full SAFe

The Full SAFe configuration supports those enterprises building large, integrated solutions that typically require hundreds  — even up to a thousand — people or more to develop and maintain. In the largest enterprises, multiple instances of Full SAFe may be required. It consists of all levels of SAFe that are involved in solution development, as illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Full SAFe Configuration

The Spanning Palette

The spanning palette (see Figure 6.) contains various roles and artifacts that may be applicable to a specific team, program, large solution, or portfolio context. An element of SAFe’s flexibility and configurability, the spanning palette permits organizations to apply only the elements needed for each level.

Figure 6. Spanning Palette

There are two versions of the spanning palette. The figure on the left is used for the essential SAFe configuration and the figure on the right is for all other configurations. The reason for the two versions is to keep the Essential SAFe configuration small and simple. And since this is a framework, it’s appropriate to apply any of the elements from the full spanning palette to the Essential SAFe configuration.

Below is a brief description of each element of the spanning palette:

  • Metrics – the primary measure in SAFe is the objective measurement of working solutions. Moreover, SAFe defines a number of additional intermediate and long-term measures as well, metrics that teams, programs, and portfolios can use to measure progress.
  • Shared services – represents the specialty roles that are necessary for the success of an ART or value stream, but that cannot be dedicated full time to any specific train.
  • CoP – a Community of Practice (CoP) is an informal group of team members and other experts, acting within the context of a program or enterprise, that has a mission of sharing practical knowledge in one or more relevant domains.
  • Milestones – a milestone is used to track progress toward a specific goal or event. These include fixed-date milestones, PI milestones and learning milestones.
  • Roadmap  the roadmap communicates planned ART and value stream deliverables and milestones over a time line.
  • Vision  – the vision describes a future view of the solution to be developed,
  • reflecting customer and stakeholders needs, as well as features and capabilities, which are proposed to address those needs.
  • System Team – this a special Agile team that provides assistance in building
  • and using the Agile development environment, including continuous integration and test automation and automating the delivery pipeline.
  • Lean UX – Lean UX is the application of lean principles to user experience design. It uses an iterative, hypothesis driven approach to product development, through constant measurement and learning loops (build – measure – learn). In SAFe, Lean UX is applied at scale, with the right combination of centralized and decentralized UX design and implementation.

The Foundation

As illustrated in Figure 6, SAFe’s foundation contains the supporting principles, values, mindset, implementation guidance and leadership roles needed to successfully deliver value at scale. Each foundation element is briefly described below.

Figure 6. SAFe Foundation
  • Lean-Agile leaders – Management has the ultimate responsibility for business outcomes. To achieve that, leaders must be trained in, and become trainers of, these leaner ways of thinking and operating. To this end, SAFe describes a new style of leadership exhibited by the enterprise’s leaders.
  • Core values – Four core values define the belief system for SAFe: alignment, built-in quality, transparency, and program execution.
  • Lean-Agile mindset. Lean-Agile leaders are lifelong learners and teachers. They understand and embrace Lean and Agile principles and practices.
  • SAFe Principles. SAFe practices are grounded in nine principles that synthesize Agile methods, Lean product development, systems thinking, and decades of field experience.
  • Implementation Roadmap. Implementing the changes necessary to become a Lean-Agile technology enterprise is a substantial change for most companies. SAFe provides an implementation roadmap to help guide organizations on this journey.
  • SPC – SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs) are change agents who combine their technical knowledge of SAFe with an intrinsic motivation to improve their company’s software and systems development processes.

Learn More

[1] Knaster, Richard; Leffingwell, Dean. SAFe 4.0 Distilled: Applying the Scaled Agile Framework for Lean Software and Systems Engineering.

Last update: 21 June, 2017