To enable fast and predictable lead times in any value stream, there is usually a relentless focus on creating a smooth and even flow of work.
Note: About the Flow Article Series
SAFe is a flow-based system. As such, any interruptions to flow must be identified and addressed systematically to enable continuous value delivery. While flow-based guidance is embedded throughout SAFe, a special collection of eight articles directly addresses impediments to flow. These are Value Stream Management, Principle #6- Make value flow without interruptions, Team Flow, ART Flow, Solution Train Flow, Portfolio Flow, the extended Guidance articles Accelerating Flow with SAFe, and Coaching Flow.
Delivering a continuous flow of value to the customer is one of the defining characteristics of an effective SAFe Enterprise. But flow is not easy to achieve, and, as described in SAFe Principle #6, Make Value Flow Without Interruptions, many impediments occur along the way. And, as with most any change, coaching the enterprise to the new way of working is required. This requires people knowledgeable in flow who can coach individuals, teams, trains, and leaders. This article describes the thinking, knowledge, and skills needed by those who take on this responsibility and who fulfill the responsibility of coaching flow.
In SAFe, depending on people skills and circumstances, the responsibility of coaching flow can, and should, be fulfilled by any number of different SAFe roles, including Scrum Masters/Team Coaches, RTEs, STEs, and any Lean-Agile leaders that seek to optimize the flow of value in their part of the organization. But as with so many other aspects of SAFe, a heavy responsibility falls on SPCs, as they are the most deeply trained and knowledgeable about how to implement and achieve the business benefits of a SAFe implementation, and they have specific tools at their disposal.
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. While the details of any flow system are based on its context, all flow systems have eight common properties, as illustrated below.
Each is described briefly below:
- Work-in-process (WIP). There is always some work in process in the system; if there weren’t, there could be no flow of value.
- Bottlenecks. In every flow system, one or more bottlenecks limit the flow through the entire system.
- Handoffs. Handoffs wouldn’t be necessary if one person could do all the work. But in any flow system, different individuals and teams will have different skills and responsibilities. Each plays its part in moving a work item through the system.
- Feedback. Customer and stakeholder feedback is integral to efficient and effective outcomes. Ideally, feedback happens throughout the entire process.
- Batch. As any system has a finite capacity; all the work can’t be done at once. Therefore, work through the system occurs in batches designed to be as efficient as possible.
- Queue. It all starts with a set of work items to be done. In addition, each value stream needs a prioritizing mechanism to sequence the work for the best value.
- Worker. People do the critical work of moving work items from one state to another.
- Policies. Policies are integral to flow. They may be local policies — like team-based policies that determine how a work item moves from step to step— or global policies that govern how work is performed within the company.
Understanding flow and the properties of flow systems allow those coaching flow to support the organization in identifying opportunities to improve flow and continually optimizing their value streams for competitive advantage. The following section outlines the responsibilities of their role.
Coaching Flow Responsibilities
The key responsibilities, activities, and expectations for coaching flow are highlighted in Figure 3 below and described in the following sections. In essence, these represent a 5-step process for implementing a flow-based system:
1. Facilitating Value Stream Mapping
The specific steps in the value stream of interest are identified and visualized through value stream mapping. This creates a shared mental model of what is required to deliver value and lays the foundation for flow improvements.
Value stream mapping can be applied to any type of value stream. For example, a Solution Train may map a complex flow that spans multiple ARTs and suppliers. An Agile Team may map the steps required to define, build, validate, and release features through the Continuous Delivery Pipeline. In any case, value stream mapping involves the five steps below.
- Identify the target value streams – Value stream mapping is always applied to a specific series of value-creating activities. Identifying the most critical activities and their boundaries is an essential first step.
- Map the current state – Next, the teams visualize the current state of the value stream. Once the current steps have been mapped, metrics are collected to understand where delays occur (Figure 4). The primary metrics used are Active Time (the time it takes to perform the work), Wait Time (the idle time between steps where no work is happening), and Percent Complete and Accurate (the percentage of work a step can process without sending it back to a previous step for correction).
- Identify improvement opportunities – The next step is identifying opportunities to improve flow. Knowledge of the eight flow properties (Figure 2) — such as addressing bottlenecks, reducing batch sizes, and ensuring faster feedback — is critical here, as any step may contribute to delays in a number of ways.
- Design the future state – With the knowledge of the current state and what constrains it, the organization can create a desired future state. Those coaching this approach help the organization see opportunities in restructuring the existing processes to provide a faster, more reliable flow of value to the customer. The clear focus is on ‘taking a systems view’ — improving the system as a whole and avoiding local optimization.
- Develop an improvement plan – The last step is creating a concrete improvement plan. The coach helps the organization involve the stakeholders who will be instrumental in addressing critical impediments to flow. If the effort is significant, the action items may be incorporated as a part of a regular PI Planning process, or perhaps solutions can be explored in the hackathon portion of the IP iteration. Smaller opportunities can be addressed by the teams in the normal course of business.
Note for SAFe Studio Members: SAFe Studio Members have access to a dedicated value stream mapping page which provides all the resources needed to facilitate a value stream mapping workshop and recommended activities before and after the event.
2. Establishing the Kanban System
Kanban systems occur in SAFe at every level. They are used to visualize work, streamline the flow of value and create a connected system to align strategy and execution across the organization. And while the different levels of the organization have their context, there are a set of common steps that apply when setting up any Kanban system:
- Map the workflow – The foundation of Kanban is to start by mapping the current workflow. A value stream map, as described in the previous section, provides the necessary input here.
- Arrange the workflow steps – Once the workflow has been identified, the steps are arranged on a Kanban board. This may not be identical to the current workflow since decisions may be made to merge or split specific steps or add new steps that represent review states. A Kanban with too many steps can make it overly complex, while too few can hide bottlenecks and non-value-added steps.
- Identify buffer states – Introduce buffer states to help manage variability in the workflow. Buffers show bottlenecks and delays in the system. Reducing the variability in the size of the work items may allow you to reduce the buffer size.
- Create policies – A Kanban board makes processes and policies explicit. For example, each state’s entry or exit policies clarify what a team needs to do before a work item can be pulled into the next state. Some examples of policies could include:
- The definition of done (DoD) for a work item
- Who can add, change, and prioritize the backlog?
- How to handle emergency requests
- What to do when team members become blocked from doing their work
- Who can move an item to the next state?
This list is not exhaustive. However, it provides example policies to help teams form their own.
- Assign initial WIP limits – As a part of the process, teams take inventory of all of their WIP and establish realistic constraints that will help enable value flow. When establishing these WIP limits for each step, it is prudent to consider the capacity of the next step in the Kanban system. There is no value in creating more work than the next step can process. Some states (like ‘Funnel’ and ‘Done’) usually do not need WIP limits.
- Identify classes of service – Kanban classes of service have two primary purposes: categorizing work items according to their priority and the ability to specify different individual policies for a specific work item type. Typical classes of service include ‘standard,’ ‘expedite,’ and ‘fixed date.’
Following these steps, an example Kanban system is shown in Figure 5. Once established, the Kanban system should be continually adjusted over time to improve flow. Moreover, the work, technology, workforce, or other parameters may change and influence value flow, creating new delays and impediments. Optimizing the Kanban system continues for as long as the needed flow exists.
Note: For more on establishing and operating Kanban systems, see the extended SAFe Guidance Article.
3. Measuring Flow
Once the Kanban system has been established, the SAFe flow metrics can be applied to measure how effectively value flows. SAFe provides six flow metrics to measure how efficient an organization is at delivering value. These are briefly described below:
- Flow Distribution is a measure of the proportion of work items by type in a system.
- Flow Velocity measures the number of completed work items over a time period.
- Flow Time is a measure of the time elapsed from start to completion for a given work item.
- Flow Load is a measure of the number of work items currently in progress (active or waiting).
- Flow Efficiency is the ratio of the total time spent in value-added work activities divided by the flow time.
- Flow Predictability is a measure of how consistently teams, ARTs, and portfolios are able to meet their commitments.
These six flow metrics are applicable at any level of the Framework, and those coaching flow must help the organization make appropriate decisions about which ones to use. Typical team flow metrics include flow velocity to help the team understand their capacity and highlight the impact of process improvements and flow distribution to help them balance technical and business demands. ARTs typically measure flow predictability to gauge how well they can meet their PI Objectives, flow time to measure the time it takes to deliver features, flow load to ensure they are not letting too much work enter the system, and flow efficiency to help identify opportunities for removing delays from the system. Finally, the portfolio will also often measure flow load, flow time, and flow distribution but applied to Epics.
When measuring flow, the following guidelines should be applied:
- Establish goals with respect to metrics – Flow metrics in SAFe support several significant objectives. First, they help assess the system’s flow as a whole, which helps understand how a team, a train, or a portfolio is performing in terms of value delivery. Another important goal is to locate impediments in the flow and thus identify opportunities for improvement. Lastly, flow metrics help validate flow improvements. The coaching task is to help the organization properly understand how to use them to optimize flow and establish goals relevant to each one.
- Set up flow metrics – Coaching helps the organization establish the data collection and processing to support the flow metrics. Teams must ensure that the metrics are correctly implemented, the data is properly collected, and the data collection is not disruptive to the flow or slows it down. Knowledge of tooling and automation is typically required.
- Interpret the results – Metrics require interpretation to be acted upon. The teams, trains, and portfolios need to explain and thoroughly understand the data points. Interpreted correctly, the data will serve as reliable guidance throughout the flow improvement journey. On the other hand, if the data is misunderstood, it can lead to wasted improvement efforts and possibly even have a negative impact on flow.
4. Accelerating Flow
Once the flow properties have been understood and the foundational flow process implemented and measured, the next step in coaching flow is to help the organization accelerate the flow of value. The basis for this guidance lies in the eight SAFe Flow Accelerators. Each accelerator is designed to positively improve one of the eight properties of a flow-based system, highlighted previously in Figure 2.
The eight flow accelerators are:
- Visualize and limit WIP
- Address bottlenecks
- Minimize handoffs and dependencies
- Get faster feedback
- Work in smaller batches
- Reduce queue lengths
- 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 to ‘debug’ flow issues. Applying these accelerators thoughtfully and regularly is the key to achieving maximum delivery efficiency in SAFe. SAFe Principle #6, Make value flow without interruptions, provides a fuller description of each of the eight flow accelerators.
When accelerating flow, the following guidelines should be applied:
- Apply the flow accelerators in context – The SAFe Flow accelerators improve flow and value delivery in a specific organizational context. Applying flow accelerators has significant differences depending on the level at which they are used and is described in the following articles: Team Flow, ART Flow, Solution Train Flow, and Portfolio Flow.
There are multiple opportunities to apply flow accelerators. PI Planning and I&A are natural venues for working with multiple teams to identify potential improvements. Additionally, during the PI execution, many opportunities emerge to adjust the process, the work, the skill structure, or whatever else is needed to enable a faster flow of value. For portfolios, the interactions around the Portfolio Kanban system represent significant opportunities for effectively applying accelerators.
- Coach Business Owners and Leaders in accelerating flow – one of the critical prerequisites of success in fast, continuous value delivery is that the Business Owners and leaders at all levels understand and seek to improve flow and understand how to apply the flow accelerators. There are some natural opportunities for coaching stakeholders in terms of accelerating flow. These include preparation for PI Planning and PI Planning itself, System Demos, Inspect & Adapt, and portfolio events.
5. Growing a Flow Mindset
All the work in applying flow practices and tools will produce a sustainable, long-term effect only if the new way of operating is anchored in the mindset and culture of the organization. Without this, teams and leaders will invariably fall back to their old behaviors. New thinking must be established, and coaching flow is critical in making it happen. The following activities help to support this goal.
- Ensure teams and stakeholders are trained in key concepts of flow – Everybody in the organization must be aligned in terms of the key concepts and principles of flow. Training for teams, leaders, and specialty roles, should all be built on a solid flow foundation.
- Make flow transparent – Leaders and teams must clearly see the challenges and what it is they need to improve. Making flow visible is a multi-faceted effort involving extensive use of flow metrics, information radiators, tooling, and productive communication around the flow issues. Interactions between leaders and teams in Gemba are critical to establishing the right level of visibility. Gradually, a shared mental model of flow emerges, and that helps the organization navigate through its journey of flow optimization.
- Help teams and stakeholders take ownership of flow improvements – Improving flow is the responsibility of all the participants in the workflow. They are the ones who experience the flow and see first-hand the opportunities for optimizing it. This requires routine leadership participation in the improvement activities and decentralized decision-making to enable the knowledge workers to improve their work environment and achieve faster flow directly.
- Use flow metrics as empirical evidence for improvements – The culture of flow improvement relies on empirical evidence. Coaching helps the organization use quantitative and qualitative data to validate flow improvements and inform further steps. This creates a virtuous cycle that grows the flow mindset as the organization sees the benefits of the flow improvements to its value delivery process.
Coaching flow is a specialized skill requiring expert-level Lean-Agile practices applied throughout the organization. Leaders and practitioners who understand the 5-steps of implementing a flow-based system will be the ones who can coach their teams, ARTs, Solution Trains, and portfolios to optimize their value streams.
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/Team Coaches, RTEs, STEs, the VMO, and the LACE all have a role in coaching the organization through continuously and relentlessly accelerating flow.
Last update: 26 September 2023