When we start thinking about ways to line up all of the essential steps needed to get a job done into a steady, continuous flow, it changes everything.
— James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, Lean Thinking
Accelerating Flow with SAFe
Note: This article is part of Extended SAFe Guidance and represents official SAFe content that cannot be accessed directly from the Big Picture.
Everything moves fast in digital business. Customer desires. Business expectations. Revenue opportunities. Competitive threats. Technology choices. Workforce demands. And it’s accelerating.
Today, markets move to where the value is—without hesitation, mercy, or guilt. To survive, enterprises must deliver continuous value in the form of products and experiences that engage and delight customers.
Major advances in technology are unlocking new ways to create this value. For example, AI, Big Data, Cloud, and DevOps enable enterprises to expand their product lines, modernize their existing offerings, scale to mass markets, make fact-based decisions, and streamline solution development. But to thrive in the digital age, building innovative solutions is not enough. It must be done fast, and that requires flow.
What is Flow?
Flow is characterized by a smooth transition of work through the entire value stream with a minimum of handoffs, delays, and rework. In SAFe, we consider flow to be present when teams, trains, and the portfolio can quickly, continuously, and efficiently deliver quality products and services from trigger to value (Figure 1).
Flow requires all individuals and teams in the value stream to be tightly synchronized around value-creating activities. Otherwise, delivery is impeded by unnecessary interruptions. Indeed, flow is so critical that SAFe provides six specific flow metrics to measure how efficient an organization is at delivering value:
- Flow Distribution – The proportion of each backlog item type in the workflow
- Flow Velocity – The number of backlog items completed in a given time
- Flow Time – The time elapsed from when a backlog item enters the workflow to when it is released
- Flow Load – Total work in process (WIP) across all steps in the workflow
- Flow Efficiency – The amount of time backlog items are actively worked on as a percentage of the total time elapsed
- Flow Predictability – Overall planned versus actual business value
Understanding flow and the metrics used to measure them allows organizations to continually optimize their value streams for competitive advantage.
Flow Enables Business Agility
Enterprises must develop the ability to sense and respond to business opportunities and threats faster than the competition. SAFe enables that with the Business Agility Value Stream (BAVS) illustrated in Figure 2. This enables enterprises to not only deliver innovative solutions but to deliver them quickly and with maximum business value.
The key to achieving business agility is establishing a smooth and efficient flow of work through this entire process, from sensing an emerging opportunity to delivering the right solution. This requires all functions, processes, activities, teams, and events involved from end to end to be optimized for maximum speed and quality.
Implementing SAFe Establishes Flow
When implementing SAFe, organizations adopt a Lean-Agile mindset, identify value streams, organize around the flow of value, prioritize economically, develop on cadence, and release in a customer-centric manner.
These practices are inherently flow-based, so to implement SAFe is to establish a flow-based delivery system. For most organizations, this becomes a first major step change in delivery velocity over legacy, project-based methods.
Through this transition, organizations gain proficiency in SAFe’s seven competencies, four of which are on the critical path for establishing flow:
- Team and Technical Agility (TTA) – The Lean-Agile principles and practices that high-performing Agile teams and teams of Agile teams use to create high-quality solutions
- Agile Product Delivery (APD) – A customer-centric approach to defining, building, and releasing a continuous flow of valuable products and services
- Enterprise Solution Delivery (ESD) – Applying Lean-Agile principles and practices to the specification, development, deployment, operation, and evolution of the world’s largest and most sophisticated software applications, networks, and cyber-physical systems
- Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) – Aligning strategy and execution by applying Lean and systems thinking approaches to strategy and investment funding, Agile portfolio operations, and governance
Developing these competencies removes the most wasteful activities from value streams, allowing them to begin to flow. SAFe’s business agility assessment, individual competency assessments, and associated growth recommendations serve as a comprehensive guide to establishing this foundational level of efficiency.
Managing the Full Value Stream Establishes a Culture for Flow
Value Stream Management (VSM), is a leadership and technical discipline that enables the maximum flow of business value through the end-to-end solution delivery life cycle. VSM is the foundation of flow-based thinking in SAFe and is rooted in the following five Lean thinking principles:
- Precisely specify value by specific product
- Identify the value stream for each product
- Make value flow without interruptions
- Let the customer pull value from the producer
- Pursue perfection
When applied across the portfolio, these principles foster a shared, Lean-Agile mindset that focuses the organization on streamlining delivery. As described in the VSM article, each principle is supported by specific SAFe practices that enable smooth flow. Lean thinking principle #3 – Make value flow without interruptions, is the key to unlocking the potential for unprecedented speed.
Enabling Flow with Agile Team Methods
Assuredly, if the teams’ work doesn’t flow smoothly, the system won’t flow either. In SAFe 6.0, two new articles help the teams achieve a higher flow of value. SAFe Team Kanban provides guidance for teams to apply Kanban as their primary team method. In addition to differing activities, this article describes the essential Kanban system teams implement to visualize and measure flow from their backlog to the customer. But using a Kanban system isn’t just for Kanban teams, the SAFe Scrum 6.0 article provides guidance for Scrum teams to apply a similar Kanban system as well. In addition, the new Scrum Master/Team Coach role carries the responsibility for improving flow for every team, no matter the team method of choice
Making Value Flow Without Interruptions
Step 3 in Lean thinking is the critical flow step. The end-to-end delivery system must be continuously cleared of wasteful activities that interrupt value flow. This requires organizations to develop the ability to systematically inspect value streams for inefficiencies, accurately diagnose root causes, and apply targeted improvements. SAFe Principle #6, Make value flow without interruptions, provides a description of the mechanics of flow along with the following eight flow accelerators:
- Visualize and limit WIP
- Address bottlenecks
- Minimize handoffs and dependencies
- Get faster feedback
- Work in smaller batches
- Reduce queue length
- Optimize time ‘in the zone’
- Remediate legacy policies and practices
Each flow accelerator is designed to address a specific type of delivery impediment. Because these impediments can manifest anywhere in the value stream, they apply at all levels of SAFe and are used by experienced Agilists to ‘debug’ flow issues and guide the portfolio toward continuous value delivery. Applying these accelerators thoughtfully and regularly is the key to achieving maximum delivery efficiency in SAFe.
Accelerating Flow for Teams, Trains, and the Portfolio
Because it is a flow-based system, SAFe instills a Lean-Agile mindset, Agile rhythm, and DevOps discipline throughout the organization. It unifies teams across functions and develops a culture of collective responsibility for achieving continuous value delivery. And when all teams and tools in the portfolio operate as a cohesive unit, unprecedented levels of acceleration can be achieved.
To realize this, flow interruptions are identified and removed wherever they occur. Flow issues manifest differently in different contexts, so the eight flow accelerators must be regularly applied at all levels of SAFe to enable continuous delivery of value to the customer. Specifically, they are applied in unique ways at each level to enable:
- Team Flow – It all starts with a team’s ability to deliver increments of value reliably, predictably, and continuously to its customers, stakeholders, and dependent teams. While Agile Teams are as cross-functional and autonomous as possible, they are not immune to interruptions to flow. Typical considerations include bottlenecks caused by insufficient ‘T-skills,’ the tendency for individuals not to want to expose incomplete work to fast feedback, local optimization, and crushing loads of technical debt.
- ART Flow – Interruptions to flow can significantly hamper an Agile Release Train’s ability to deliver integrated solutions with high speed and quality to its customers. Challenges faced by teams add up to produce larger bottlenecks at the ART level. For example, large batch sizes can delay customer feedback, clunky handoffs can delay integration, and legacy governance practices can delay deployment.
- Solution Train Flow – The coordination of multiple ARTs and Suppliers and the complexity of really big systems creates a ripe opportunity for new kinds of interruptions to occur. Systems are harder to fully test technically, and getting fast feedback from the end customer gets harder, large queues of ‘committed future requirements’ can strip flexibility and responsiveness from the value stream, and legacy governance policies can slow down the system from the start.
- Portfolio Flow –A SAFe portfolio’s ability to deliver a continuous flow of epics to achieve the portfolio vision, value stream KPIs, and business objectives can be heavily impacted by interruptions of many types. It can be hard for busy leaders to even find the ‘time in zone’ to focus on this critical work. Early feedback can be hard to garner on intangible, emergent concepts, and lack of alignment can bottleneck critical decision-making.
Resolving flow issues at each level persistently and simultaneously ensures that there is nowhere for interruptions to hide. Flow is incrementally accelerated everywhere in the system, which continually speeds value delivery.
Of course, someone must be on hand to actively promote and manage ongoing flow acceleration. In SAFe, this important responsibility falls to coaches who develop and have skills to help diagnose and accelerate flow.
Enabling flow acceleration is a specialized skill that requires expert-level Lean-Agile practices applied throughout the organization. Leaders and practitioners are needed who can guide teams, ARTs, Solution Trains, and portfolios through the process of continually optimizing the value stream.
Coaching flow involves these activities at all levels of SAFe:
- Facilitating value stream mapping – Value stream mapping is fundamental to mastering flow. It enables the end-to-end delivery process to be visualized, and its efficiency measured, which creates a shared understanding of how work propagates through the organization and where flow needs to be improved.
- Establishing Kanban systems – Every backlog in SAFe is supported by a Kanban system, whose pull-based method of regulating flow promotes high throughput and quality.
- Measuring flow – As described earlier, SAFe’s flow metrics enable an organization to objectively monitor, evaluate, and improve the efficiency of its value streams.
- Optimizing flow with the eight accelerators – The ongoing pursuit of perfection motivates an organization to accelerate flow and continually strive for a state of zero delay in the value stream. This requires constant attention to the natural impediments and interruptions to flow.
- Thinking flow – All the work in applying flow practices and tools produces a sustainable, long-term improvement only if the new way of operating is anchored in the mindset and culture of the organization.
SPCs often lead the effort. As change agents and stewards of Lean-Agile practices, they move fluidly throughout all levels of SAFe to detect and resolve systemic flow issues. In addition, Scrum Masters, RTEs, STEs, the APMO, and the LACE all have a role in coaching the organization through the ongoing process of continuously and relentlessly accelerating flow.
Establishing and continuously accelerating flow is the key to achieving long-term, sustainable business agility. Implementing SAFe establishes a flow-based delivery system and culture. Value Stream Management builds upon that foundation by instilling Lean thinking across the organization. “Make value flow without interruptions” serves as a mantra and set of eight practices that enable flow issues to be detected and resolved at all levels of SAFe. Finally, ongoing coaching from experienced Lean-Agile leaders and practitioners fosters a rapid acceleration of value delivery.
Last update: 25 April 2023