The more alignment you have, the more autonomy you can grant. The one enables the other.
—Stephen Bungay, author and strategy consultant
Agile Release Train
The Agile Release Train (ART) is a long-lived team of Agile teams that incrementally develops, delivers, and often operates one or more solutions in a value stream.
ARTs are teams of Agile Teams that align to a shared business and technology mission. Each is a virtual organization (typically 50 – 125 people) that plans, commits, develops, and deploys together. ARTs are organized around the enterprise’s significant Development Value Streams and exist solely to realize the promise of that value by building and delivering Solutions that benefit the Customer.
ARTs are cross-functional and have all the capabilities needed to define, build, validate, release, and, where applicable, operate solutions.
These capabilities allow the ART to deliver a continuous flow of value, as shown in Figure 1.
Organized Around Value
As virtual organizations, ARTs have all the people needed to define, deliver, and operate the solution, eliminating the functional silos that may exist, as shown in Figure 2.
In a “functional” organization, developers work with developers; testers collaborate with other testers; architects and systems engineers work with each other, and operations work by themselves. Although there are reasons why organizations have evolved this way, the structure slows the flow of value, as it must cross all the silos. The daily involvement of managers is necessary to move the work across silos. As a result, progress is slow, and handoffs and delays rule the day.
Instead, the ART applies systems thinking (SAFe Principle #2) and organizes around value (SAFe Principle #10) to build an optimized cross-functional organization. This facilitates the flow of value from ideation through deployment and release into operations, as Figure 3 illustrates.
Together, this fully cross-functional organization—whether physical (direct organizational reporting) or virtual (line of reporting is unchanged)—has everyone and everything it needs to define, deliver, and operate solutions. It is self-organizing and self-managing. This creates a far leaner organization, where traditional daily task and project management is no longer required. Value flows more quickly with less overhead.
To simplify the job of finding the optimum structure of ARTs within the organization and Agile teams within ARTs, SAFe recommends team topologies as described in the book Team Topologies . SAFe recommends four ways to organize teams (Figure 4).
- Stream-aligned teams are end customer-aligned and are capable of performing all the steps needed to build end-to-end customer value.
- Complicated subsystem teams are organized around critical solution subsystems. They focus on areas of high technical specialization, which limits the cognitive load on all the teams.
- Platform teams provide application services and APIs for stream-aligned teams to be able to leverage common platform services.
- Enabling teams provides tools, services, and short-term expertise to other teams.
Further guidance on organizing Agile teams can be found in the extended guidance article Organizing Agile Teams and ARTs: Team Topologies at Scale.
Agile Teams Power the Train
ARTs include the Agile teams that define, build, and test features, as well as those that deploy, release, and operate the solution. SAFe Agile teams apply SAFe Scrum or SAFe Team Kanban or hybrids that suit their specific context. Each Agile team typically has ten or fewer dedicated individual contributors covering all the roles necessary to build a quality increment of value. Teams may be technology-focused—delivering software, hardware, and any combination—business-focused, or a combination of both. Each Agile team has two specialty roles, the Scrum Master / Team Coach and the Product Owner. And, of course, Agile teams within the ART are themselves cross-functional, as shown in Figure 5.
Aligned to a Common Cadence
ARTs also address one of the most common problems with traditional Agile development: teams working on the same solution operate independently and asynchronously. That makes it extremely difficult to routinely integrate the entire system. In other words, ‘The teams are iterating, but the system isn’t.’ This increases the risk of late discovery of issues and problems, as shown in Figure 6.
Instead, the ART applies cadence and synchronization to assure that the system is iterating as a whole (Figure 7).
Cadence and synchronization ensure the focus remains on the evolution and objective assessment of the full system rather than its elements. The System Demo, which occurs at the end of every Iteration, provides objective evidence that the system is iterating. As Figure 7 illustrates, a System Team is often formed as an enabling group to help with infrastructure development and full system integration and validation. Over time, however, many of the centralized services provided by the System Team can be automated or absorbed by the teams themselves.
Enabled by Critical Roles
In addition to the Agile teams, the following roles aid the successful execution of the ART:
- Release Train Engineer (RTE) is a servant leader who facilitates ART execution, impediment removal, risk and dependency management, and continuous improvement.
- Product Management is largely responsible for ‘what gets built,’ as defined by the Vision, Roadmap, and new Features in the ART Backlog. They work with customers, teams, and Product Owners to understand and communicate their needs and participate in solution validation.
- System Architect is an individual or team that defines the system’s overall architecture. They work at a level of abstraction above the teams and components and typically define Nonfunctional Requirements (NFRs), major system elements, subsystems, and interfaces.
- Business Owners are key stakeholders of the ART, with final responsibility for the business outcomes of the train.
- Customers are the ultimate economic buyers or value users of the solution.
In addition to these critical ART roles, the following functions play an essential part in ART success:
- System Teams typically assist in building and maintaining development, continuous integration, and test environments.
- Shared Services are specialists necessary for the success of an ART but cannot be dedicated to a specific train. They often include data security, information architects, site reliability engineering (SRE), database administrators (DBAs), and many more.
Key ART roles rely on support from the teams. For example, the RTE depends on Scrum Master / Team Coaches for help with aspects of ART operations and improvement. Product Management relies on Product Owners to turn their product vision into reality. Architects collaborate with technology professionals on teams to devise viable architectures.
The ultimate purpose of every ART is to deliver effective solutions to the customer. Essentially, ARTs are built for the sole purpose of establishing a fast flow of solution features. To achieve that, a train develops the solution iteratively, constantly engaging with the customer and adjusting the course of action towards an optimal solution.
Figure 8 shows the critical areas of responsibility of an ART that help achieve that objective:
Connecting with the Customer
Customers are the ultimate beneficiaries of the business solutions ARTs create and maintain. But connecting with the customer requires deliberate effort and a clear understanding of how to apply lean and agile practices in a unique ART context.
- Apply customer centricity – An ART routinely focuses on customer needs and opportunities to benefit the customer. Customer Centricity is a necessary mindset for the ART and its constituent teams. The ART works to increase and maintain customer empathy and continuously research better ways to solve customer problems.
- Use design thinking – A recurrent process of understanding the problem and designing the right solution—Design Thinking—enables an ART to create desirable, feasible, and sustainable solutions. Paying close attention to user personas, journey mapping, and customer benefit analysis helps an ART discover new, valuable product capabilities. The use of lightweight prototypes validates customer value hypotheses quickly and keeps the ART on the right track.
Planning the Work
Planning crucial activities for an ART enables alignment across teams and stakeholders in terms of what and how to build within the next timebox. Alignment is one of the Core Values of SAFe, and ARTs, as a building block of a SAFe organization, have built-in means for achieving and sustaining alignment.
- Align ART priorities with portfolio strategy – Every ART operates in a broader portfolio context and needs to align with the overall portfolio strategy. Strategic Themes orient the ARTs within a portfolio towards a common goal. However, achieving the alignment also requires an established process that involves: 1) regularly engaging with portfolio stakeholders at the ART level and 2) including ART representatives in portfolio interactions. Organizing this communication and interaction is easier around PI cadence. Epic Owners often serve as an important link between portfolio strategy and ART execution.
- Prepare for PI Planning – Stakeholders and teams need to prepare carefully for PI Planning. Product Management and Business Owners develop the vision and agree on priorities for the next PI: teams take inventory of their remaining work, their attainable capacity, and any new effort that may emerge in the local context.
- Plan the PI – PI planning generates alignment within the ART. Teams create and agree on the PI Objectives that will guide them throughout the PI execution. Business Owners have an opportunity to share business and customer context with teams and, in turn, learn how the current technology and delivery capability can be employed to create optimal business value for the enterprise.
ARTs develop solution features by applying a cadence that involves key activities to keep the train on the tracks. At certain points, an ART will release the newly created value to the customer.
- Frequently integrate and test – A fast development rhythm requires frequent integration and testing. This helps uncover technology and implementation problems early and gives the teams enough time to respond to the findings. Without recurring integration and testing, an ART operates in excessive uncertainty and variability. Built-in Quality and Team and Technical Agility provide guidance on these practices.
- Develop in short increments of value – An ART implements the PI as a series of short increments, each representing a small batch of integrated, tested, and demonstrable value. The ART’s iteration cadence provides a natural pace to create these increments. Each helps the ART learn about potential implementation challenges, get customer feedback, and agree on a decision point with possible course corrections for the rest of the PI.
- Regularly synchronize and make adjustments – While executing the PI, an ART has multiple checkpoints in the form of an ART Sync, which includes a Coaches Sync and PO Sync (see the PI article for further description). These events increase visibility into the progress toward the current PI objectives and help the ART make timely adjustments.
- Build a continuous delivery pipeline – An effective Agile development process provides the means for ongoing exploration and integration of work. Additionally, the teams need to establish a continuous deployment process via building a Continuous Delivery Pipeline (CDP). This requires value stream mapping to identify the sources of excessive delay and variability. As a part of CDP, Continuous Deployment often involves purposeful system design that favors low coupling of capabilities, which enables the teams to deploy value independent of each other.
- Establish release governance process – Each ART establishes a governance process suitable for its release cycle. The governance process includes the ways to plan and execute the releases. This involves several activities, including:
- Aligning releases with strategic goals
- Validating releasable increments
- Ensuring compliance with standards and regulations
- Assessing customer impact
- Maintaining the supporting assets and activities for releasing
- Release frequently and continually optimize the process – Releasing frequently helps reduce time-to-market. Additionally, establishing successful continuous delivery and governance processes is only possible when the releases happen on a frequent, reliable basis. Over time, solution assets, architectures, and the infrastructure evolve and accumulate technical debt that may unexpectedly disrupt the release process. Releasing regularly helps uncover, mitigate, or even prevent those issues before they cause damage.
Getting fast feedback is the primary component of an ART’s high development velocity: speed comes from fast learning and adaptation rather than from ‘working harder.’ Technology feedback results from integration and testing as well as running technical spikes. The feedback on the product value comes from the customer and business stakeholders. ARTs routinely:
- Involve the customer in the development process – There is no substitute for direct customer input. Including it in a routine development process helps an ART move at a much higher speed to avoid the costly mistake of building capabilities the customer doesn’t need or cannot use. Preparation for PI planning, the PI planning itself, and system demos provide venues for customer interaction.
- Measure business outcomes and usage – Customer use of solutions may reveal issues and opportunities that otherwise might remain invisible to the ART. Creating the data capture and analytics capabilities, however, requires investment in the train’s capacity, a proactive approach, and the use of Architectural Runway. Additionally, an ART must measure whether delivered solutions enable the desired business outcomes—the ultimate purpose of the ART’s effort.
- Perform routine A/B testing – Successful solution development is contingent upon an ART’s ability to navigate the unknowns and make effective decisions. A/B testing enables effective decision-making and improves the development speed of an ART. Instead of prematurely committing to certain functionality, the ART creates two or more options and validates them with users, thus gaining a real sense of which alternative is performing better.
- Test User Experience – User Experience (UX) is essential to fully realizing the solution potential. But to provide productive UX, there needs to be an explicit, thorough UX design and testing strategy. As a part of this process, hypotheses are formulated, and then Minimum Marketable Features (MMF) are built and evaluated by observing the user in action, surveying them, or utilizing analytics. The SAFe Lean UX article covers additional topics of enabling effective UX.
An ART seeks to continuously improve productivity in delivering customer value. Naturally, the process requires measuring different aspects of ART operations and identifying areas for improvement:
- Measure competency, flow, and outcomes – Every ART should regularly assess against key applicable competencies. ARTs also should routinely measure ART Flow and apply Flow Accelerators to initiate forward momentum for ongoing flow improvement. Additionally, ARTs use their Value Stream KPIs to measure the outcomes that underpin the desired customer and business benefits.
- Inspect & Adapt at regular intervals – At every PI boundary, an ART has an opportunity to look back at the last PI, identify problems, and take corrective action during the Inspect & Adapt (I&A) event. This is the perfect time to identify significant, systemic improvement opportunities.
- Make small improvements on the fly – Every ART routinely discovers small, local, and tactical improvement opportunities. In most cases, it is best to address these as they occur and without waiting for the next I&A. This achieves quick wins and preserves the I&A for issues that require more attention and the involvement of high-profile stakeholders.
- Leverage Innovation & Planning Iteration – The IP Iteration offers an opportunity to allocate uninterrupted time to innovation and learning. This helps the ART to further advance its solution, technical infrastructure, and various processes.
Learn More Skelton, Mathew, and Manuel Pais. Team Topologies. IT Revolution Press, 2019.
Last update: 24 October 2022