If you don’t scale the mountain, you can’t view the plain.

Chinese Proverb

Portfolio Level Abstract

The highest level of the SAFe is the Portfolio Level, where programs are aligned to the enterprise business strategy along Value Stream lines.  In the larger enterprise, there may be multiple program portfolios, one for each instance of SAFe, each having its own strategy, funding and PPM fiduciaries. The Portfolio Level has a number of key constructs:

  • Portfolio Vision, which in turn contains:
  • Strategic Themes
  • Value Streams
  • Budgets
  • Epics
  • Portfolio Backlog
  • Kanban Systems
  • Epic Owners
  • Enterprise Architect
  • Program Portfolio Management
  • Portfolio Metrics

Lean Thinking constructs and Lean-Agile Leaders help integrate and instill Lean and Agile thinking through all levels of the portfolio.


Portfolio Vision

The Portfolio Vision represents the highest level of solution definition and governance in a SAFe instance. Decisions made here drive the overall economics for the portfolio. The Portfolio Vision is captured in a number of additional SAFe constructs, as defined below.

Strategic Themes are specific, itemized business objectives that connect the portfolio(s) vision to the evolving enterprise business strategy. They provide business context for decision-making within the portfolio, affecting investments in value streams and release trains, and serve as inputs to the portfolio and program backlogs.

Value Streams are long-lived series of system definition, development and deployment steps used to build and deploy systems that provide a continuous flow of value to the business or customer. The set of  Value Streams establishes the objectives for products and services in a portfolio.  Value streams are realized by people, in the construct of the Agile Release Train, or ART. If it takes a large number of teams (typically >10–15) to build and deliver value in a value stream, then multiple Agile Release Trains are formed within that stream. Value Streams lend themselves to systematic analysis and improvement by the lean tool of Value Stream Mapping.

Budgets fund the people and other resources for Agile Release Trains.  Each “partition” in the pie-shaped graphic represents a budget for a specific ART. Within that budget allocation, managers are generally empowered to develop features in whatever way makes the most economic and business sense for that program.  With this process, the enterprise exercises its fiduciary responsibility by driving investment to the agreed-to business priorities. SAFe’s Lean Agile budget paradigm, Beyond Project Cost Accounting, provides for fast and empowered decision making, with appropriate fiduciary control. One special budget represents a reserve for funding (or a capacity allocation, if all budget is allocated to ARTs) for epics in the Portfolio Backlog.

Epics capture the largest initiatives in a portfolio. Business Epics describe functional or user-experience epics; Architectural Epics  capture the technological changes that must be made to keep the systems flowing.

SAFe suggests two kanban systems to manage to manage the portfolio backlogs; one kanban for business epics, and another kanban for architectural epics, (although they can also be combined into one system).  These systems:

  • Visualize the flow of epic-level value through analysis and into implementation
  • Limit work potential work in process to help assure flow
  • Drive an early and effective collaboration with the development teams
  • Provide a quantitative basis for economic decision making
  • Make policies with respect to capacity allocations explicit

Each system employs five stages (funnel, evaluating, analysis, program backlog, and implementation) to manage the workflow and bring visibility to the work. Epic Owners take responsibility for an epics as it moves through the system.

The Portfolio Backlog is the highest-level backlog in the framework, and serves as a holding stage for Epics that make it through the Kanban systems and await implementation. It contains the prioritized set of  Business and Architectural Epics that are necessary to help the portfolio achieve market differentiation, operational efficiencies, or better integrated solutions.

Program Portfolio Management

Program Portfolio Management (PPM) represents the highest-level fiduciary (investment and return) and content authority (what gets built) in the framework. There, the responsibilities for Strategy and Investment Funding, Program Management, and Governance rest with those business managers and executives who understand the enterprise business strategy, technology, and financial constraints, and define and implement the portfolio product/solution strategy.  They are typically assisted in these duties by a Program Management Office (PMO), which shares responsibility for guiding program execution and governance.

Portfolio Metrics

Agile processes, practices, and work products are inherently measurable, and there are many Metrics that can be used to assess and improve Team, Program, Portfolio and enterprise progress. SAFe suggests a number of Portfolio Metrics, as well as ART (Program and Teams) Metrics.


Lean thinking is a set of principles and practices that maximize customer value while minimizing waste and reducing time to market. The goal of Lean is sustainably shortest lead time, with best value to people and society. SAFe Lean thinking incorporates five elements: the goalkaizen (continuous improvement), product development flowrespect for people and Lean-Agile Leaders. Lean thinking is essential to scaling Agile practices to the enterprise level, and is foundational to SAFe.

Lean-Agile Leaders

The primary responsibility for success of the enterprise lies in the hands of the existing managers, leaders, and executives.  SAFe Lean-Agile Leaders are life-long learners and teachers who help teams build better software systems through understanding and exhibiting the values, principles and practices of Lean, systems thinking, and Agile software development. SAFe Lean-Agile Leaders: Take a Systems View; Embrace the Agile Manifesto; Implement Product Development Flow; and Unlock the Intrinsic Motivation of Knowledge Workers.

Learn More

[1] Leffingwell, Dean.  Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Portfolio. Addison-Wesley, 2011.

Last update: 30 June, 2014

Leffingwell et al. © 2011-2014 Scaled Agile, Inc.

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