What is Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)? | A Complete Guide

As enterprises take a step towards embracing agile transformation, the lack of agile upstream skills often creates roadblocks. Agile Manifesto tends to the needs of a small team, but as the level of complexity and organizational scale increases, the need for a holistic framework rises.

This is where SAFe, Scaled Agile Framework, comes into the picture. This innovative enterprise agile framework combines the values of Agile, Lean, and System Thinking to improve time to market, collaboration, quality, and, in turn, overall productivity.

SAFe, acronym for Scaled Agile Framework, offers the required flexibility and practices to eliminate the loopholes in large-scale, complicated software development projects.

According to the 14th State of Agile Report, 35% of the respondents (over 40,000) continue to use SAFe, making it the most popular scaling method for software development.

Let us understand more about SAFe and why it is a safe choice for enterprises.

What is Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)?

Scaled Agile Framework for enterprises is a knowledge base that combines agile practices, system thinking, and a lean mindset to help build large and complex software. It is an ever-evolving knowledge base that gets updated from time to time.

With the SAFe model, you can expect to build large and complex systems while ensuring timely delivery and quality.

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) was introduced in 2011 by Dean Leffingwell and since then has been the most popular software development framework across large-scale organizations. According to Scaled Agile, a provider for SAFe, 70% of the US Fortune 100 companies have already adopted this innovative framework.

Difference Between Agile and SAFe Framework

Many times organizations and enterprises confuse between Agile and SAFe framework. Here’s a table that can help you understand how the two differ from each other.

Who is it for Startups and mid-sized companies Enterprises
Suitable for Small teams working on a small project Enterprises working on large-scale product development
Based on Agile Manifesto Agile Development, Systems Thinking, Lean Product Development
Teams Small Organizational-level
Principles and Values 4 values and 12 principles 4 values and 9 principles

Why Scaled Agile Framework?

It gets challenging to develop enterprise-level applications with Agile. The complexity of the project and the large development teams are better manageable with Scaled Agile Framework. That is another reason that SAFe is also defined as “scaling of Agile.”

Agile Manifesto has been helping software development companies by offering values and principles for making their initiatives successful. Agile teams provide both flexibility and speed by sticking to the product mindset over the project mindset. However, it suits the needs of smaller teams.

Scaled Agile Framework works for enterprises supporting distributed and large teams that build complex software. SAFe lets organizations embrace disruptive innovation by guiding your way to successful execution in a quick and organized manner.

The business results of adopting Scaled Agile Framework for enterprises include:

The Three Building Blocks of SAFe

The SAFe model takes inspiration from Agile development practices, lean product development, and system thinking. It picks the best features from the underlying concepts to build a smarter and a workable, integrated framework.

Agile Development

The four values and twelve principles of the Agile Manifesto have served as a guide for software developers for a long time now. It was initially introduced to “undo the damages that the waterfall had done.”

The breakthrough feature introduced by agile is iteration — the ability to move to and fro at any stage of the product development process.

SAFe extracts the culture and collaborative team-based efforts that Agile promotes.

2. System Thinking

System thinking views the system as an interrelated set of elements. System thinking focuses on the amalgamation of two systems — one built for the greater benefit of the customer and the second representing the organization that builds it.

SAFe extracts the mindset that the teams, resources, and business units work in tandem towards product development initiatives.

3. Lean Product Development

Lean product development combines the best of product development practices and lean thinking. The origins of Lean Product Development are Total Quality Management and the Toyota Production System.

The essence of Lean Product development:

The continuous evaluation of existing processes to eliminate waste and delays. — Taiichi Ohno

The principles of Lean Product Development include:

  • Understand the product development process from ideation to launch
  • Respect for people that work for the product and the culture they work in
  • Maintain a cadence of the underlying steps of product development
  • Build and release an MVP for receiving faster feedback to eliminate waste and offer value
  • Follow the principles of Kaizen, a culture of continuous improvement
  • Take the front seat and follow lean-agile leadership to ensure quality and quick delivery

SAFe extracts the lean mindset to eliminate waste while focusing on quick and quality delivery by following all the principles mentioned above.

What are the Four Levels of Scaled Agile Framework?

There are four levels, or let’s say configurations of SAFe, i.e., essential SAFe, Large Solution SAFe, Portfolio SAFe, and Full SAFe. Let us discuss each of them in detail.

  • Essential SAFe: This is the basic-level configuration of the scaled agile framework and provides limited elements that offer most of the benefits. It is the ground-level configuration that acts as a foundation for all the other configurations.
  • Large Solution SAFe: This is a suitable solution for large-scale and complex applications and works independently of the portfolio level. This level facilitates coordination and synchronization for maintaining transparency and an organized flow of work.
  • Portfolio SAFe: This configuration aligns the portfolio’s initiatives with the overall solution strategy of the enterprise. It also helps define strategy and investment funding for the portfolio’s value streams. Also, it offers lean governance and Agile portfolio operations for the teams involved.
  • Full SAFe: This is an extensive-level configuration that includes all the capabilities to develop large-scale, complex, and integrated solutions as a part of the team programs. This level is most suitable for teams involving hundreds of people working on a solution that requires developing and maintaining numerous processes.

What are the Four Core Values of SAFe?

The Scaled Agile Framework core values ensure that everyone involved in the project understands how to behave and act to ensure effective and timely delivery. Let’s discuss each of them in detail.

1. Alignment

Like cars out of alignment, misaligned companies can develop serious problems. They are hard to steer, and they don’t respond well to changes in the direction. Even if it’s clear where everyone thinks they’re headed, the vehicle is unlikely to get them there. — © Scaled Agile, Inc.

This value of the Scaled Agile Framework promotes the collaboration between management and teams so that all the efforts are driven towards customer satisfaction. Alignment also helps respond to change and maintain a competitive edge while managing work across geographically distributed teams.

It is about maintaining the cadence of the process while ensuring that everyone is on the same page and understands the system’s ins and outs.

2. Built-in-Quality

SAFe includes built-in-quality practices to ensure that all the increments or microservices of the overall product adhere to the quality standards. In simple words, SAFe believes in embedding the quality at every stage of the development process instead of adding it later.

3. Transparency

Miscommunication can easily seep into the product development teams. This, in turn, leads to delays, waste of resources, and mismanaged priorities. Transparency is required to mitigate the effect of such failures, which, in turn, builds trust. If the teams communicate regularly and maintain clarity of facts, everyone can confidently rely on each other and prove productive.

4. Program Execution

To ensure timely and continuous delivery, the Scaled Agile Framework relies on Essential SAFe. It comprises manageable roles, sprints, and artifacts as a part of the Agile Release Train (ART), which offers guidelines to streamline program execution. These guidelines include team and technical agility (skills and guidelines for teams), Agile product delivery ( focuses on customer needs), and lean-agile leadership (focuses on how leaders motivate and empower teams).

Scaled Agile Framework Principles

The SAFe framework relies on some fundamental principles that are based on agile and lean principles. Here’s an insight into each of them:

1. Take an Economic View

The organization and the teams should understand the economic impact of decisions they make in the earlier stages of the scaled agile development. The principle implies that any business should consider economics to make informed decisions at all stages.

2. Apply System Thinking

The principle of system thinking ensures that all aspects of the system and its environment are applied to the software development lifecycle stages. There are three aspects to system thinking — the solution itself is a fully-fledged system, the enterprise that is building the system is a system in itself, and how the whole process helps in optimizing the full value stream.

3. Assume Variability; Preserve Options

According to this principle, technical and market variability exist throughout the development process. Ignoring variability altogether is a bad solution for the development practice. Instead, the goal should be to predict and accept variabilities and manage them while preserving options by following the set-based design approach.

4. Build Incrementally with Fast, Integrated Learning Cycles

This principle implies that the solution should be built incrementally over a series of agile scrums similar to Agile Development. Every sprint should result in a workable part of the system, i.e., following a microservice architecture. All the microservices, when combined, should be able to build a comprehensive system.

5. Base Milestones on Objective Evaluation of Working Systems

According to this principle, all the stakeholders involved should collaborate to analyze the economic benefits of the process throughout the development lifecycle. This is to ensure that the said solution offers value and economic benefits.

6. Visualize and Limit WIP, Reduce Batch Sizes, and Manage Queue Lengths

Any product under development aims to maintain a continuous flow of processes while steering clear of the roadblocks. This can be done by visualizing and limiting work in the process, reducing the batch size of the requirement, design, implementation, conducting testing phases, and reducing queue lengths for ensuring timely delivery.

7. Apply Cadence, Synchronize with Cross-Domain Planning

According to this principle, cadence, synchronization, and cross-domain planning are needed for quality system delivery. Cadence ensures that the flow of events is systematic so that everything stays on track and follows a pre-decided routine. Synchronization ensures that different parts of the system are understood, analyzed, and integrated smoothly into the system. And, cross-domain planning offers the opportunity to integrate and test business and technical solutions of the system.

8. Unlock the Intrinsic Motivation of Knowledge Workers

According to this principle, all the knowledge workers should be continuously encouraged and motivated to perform better. This can be done by understanding that money or incentives are not sole employee motivators; instead, the leaders need to motivate by giving purpose and minimal possible constraints while respecting the opinions of everyone across the teams.

9. Decentralize Decision-making

According to this principle, delivering value in the speculated time frame is only possible with decentralized decision-making. When the decisions depend on the higher authorities, who often lack clarity due to limited local context, there are chances of a drop in their quality.

Moreover, if the waiting period for a go-ahead from the concerned authority is long, the facts on which the decisions need to be taken can either become redundant or completely change owing to the time lag. Thus, decisions should be decentralized (except decisions that are infrequent, permanent, and offer economies of scale) to improve the overall product development flow.

10. Organize Around Value

In today’s world, product development efforts are labeled successful if they can respond to change promptly and offer value. To achieve this agility, enterprises need to organize the work culture around set standard values. When the customer and market demands change, the enterprise can quickly adapt to the new requirements around the organized flow of values.

12-Point Checklist for Implementing SAFe

Scaled Agile, Inc. has introduced a SAFe implementation roadmap for a safe SAFe transformation.

Here is the SAFe implementation roadmap:

Scaled Agile Framework Benefits

Implementing Scaled Agile Framework means better project management at an enterprise level. It helps untangle the complexities of product development by offering principles and values for execution.

The benefits of Scaled Agile Framework include:

1. Enhanced Quality

A scaled agile framework provides the flexibility to innovate by reducing the roadblocks in the path towards execution. The quality of the software depends on customer satisfaction.

With SAFe you can expect to:

  • Reduce the number of bugs
  • A decrease in warranty expenditure
  • Increase client and user satisfaction

2. Increased Productivity

SAFe promotes collaboration and engagement among teams by breaking the silos across the organization. Everybody is productive and contributes equally to the ultimate goal, making Scaled Framework a preferable framework for distributed agile teams.

With SAFe you can expect to:

  • Increase the overall quality of the product
  • Boost cross-functional culture across the organization
  • Reduce iterations and defect rate

3. Streamlined Product Execution

SAFe offers a set of values and principles that bring cadence to the development process. From planning to execution, everything falls into place, leaving no loopholes behind. The upshot of all this is a reputed organization that stands true to its promise of quality and timely delivery.

With SAFe you can expect to:

  • Pre-plan the project delivery timeline
  • Ensure timely delivery
  • Create a positive net promoter score from the business

4. Process Transparency

SAFe product development helps maintain transparency, which builds trust among the teams. And, once there is trust — performance, motivation, innovation, and continuous improvement become evident.

With SAFe you can expect to:

  • Keep the expectations realistic and manageable
  • Improve trust among the teams
  • Provide insights into dependencies and risks in advance


Scaled Agile Framework is the new idea of product development for complex project management in large-scale enterprises. It combines the best of lean product development, agile practices, and system thinking to offer customer value.

The ten principles and the four core values provide a roadmap to the teams working towards a common goal. Upon successful implementation of Scaled Agile Framework, you can expect enhanced quality, streamlined execution, process transparency, and productivity.

SAFe is a framework that holds the potential of killing two birds with one stone — on the one hand — it promotes team collaboration, engagement, and productivity. On the other, it offers timely and quality delivery to the customer.

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Adam Milne

About the Author

Forte:Managing and Leading projects with multi-cultural teams in competitive environments
Likes: Biking around NYC and enjoys Pineapple on Pizza
Dislikes: Micromanaging
Claim to Fame: As Creed in ‘The Office’ says, I was born in the US of A.
Biggest Tech blunder committed: Early in my career, thinking UX and UI are the same things. *Facepalm*
Wannabe: A professional Basketball Player

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