Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
—The Agile Manifesto
Essential SAFe provides the minimal elements necessary for Agile Release Trains to deliver solutions and is the simplest starting point for implementation.
Essential SAFe provides the minimal elements necessary for Agile Release Trains to deliver solutions and is the simplest starting point for implementation.As a common SAFe starting point, Essential SAFe excludes Enterprise Solution Delivery and Portfolio concerns.
The Agile Release Train (ART) is the heart of Essential SAFe. ARTs are virtual organizations formed to span functional boundaries, eliminate unnecessary handoffs and steps, and accelerate value delivery by adopting SAFe’s Lean-Agile Principles and practices.
The Essential SAFe configuration (Figure 1) includes the following constructs:
- The Foundation element, which includes the Lean-Agile Mindset, Core Values, SAFe Principles, Implementation Roadmap, the role of the SPC, and two core competencies:
- Lean-Agile Leadership – Describes how Lean-Agile Leaders drive and sustain organizational change and operational excellence by empowering individuals and teams to reach their highest potential.
- Continuous Learning Culture – Describes a set of values and practices that continually encourage individuals—and the enterprise as a whole—to increase knowledge, competence, performance, and innovation.
- Two delivery core competencies:
- Team and Technical Agility – Describes the critical skills and Lean-Agile principles and practices that high-performing Agile teams and Teams of Agile teams use to create high-quality solutions for their customers.
- Agile Product Delivery – A customer-centric approach to defining, building, and releasing a continuous flow of valuable products and services to customers.
- The essential level roles, artifacts, and events
- A minimal spanning palette
Essential SAFe provides a starting point for Implementing SAFe, including the ten critical success factors needed for an ART to realize the majority of the Framework’s benefits (see the last section of this article.)
Essential SAFe provides the relevant roles, artifacts, events, and mindset for ARTs to deliver one or more desirable, feasible, viable, and sustainable Solutions. The ART’s long-lived, flow-based, self-organizing nature powers SAFe and ultimately enables Business Agility. ARTs are typically virtual, spanning organizational and geographic boundaries; others follow a line of business or product line management reporting structure.
The highlights of Essential SAFe include the following:
- Agile Release Train (ART) – a long-lived team of Agile teams that incrementally develops, delivers and often operates one or more solutions in a value stream.
- Continuous Delivery Pipeline – Describes the workflows, activities, and automation needed to release value to the end user constantly.
- Customer Centricity – A mindset and a way of doing business that focuses on creating positive customer experiences.
- Design Thinking – An iterative solution development process that assures solutions are desired by customers and users while ensuring the solution is feasible, economically viable, and sustainable throughout its lifecycle.
- Lean UX – Lean User Experience is a mindset, culture, and process that embraces Lean-Agile methods. It implements functionality in minimum viable increments and determines success by measuring results against a benefit hypothesis.
- PI (Planning Interval) – is a fixed timebox during which an Agile Release (ART) Train delivers continuous value to achieve its PI Objectives.
- Iterations – Fixed-length timeboxes that provide the development cadence for Agile teams building solutions.
- Innovation and Planning (IP) Iteration – Provides the teams with an opportunity for exploration and innovation, dedicated time for planning, and learning through informal and formal channels.
- SAFe Scrum– A lightweight process for Agile Teams to deliver value continuously. Most SAFe teams use SAFe Scrum to facilitate their work, including Built-in quality practices.
- SAFe Team Kanban – a Lean-Agile method that helps Agile Teams facilitate the flow of value by visualizing workflow, establishing Work in Process (WIP) limits, delivering value continuously, measuring throughput, and continually improving their process.
- Built-In Quality – a set of practices established to ensure that the outputs of business functions or technology teams meet appropriate quality standards throughout the process of creating customer value.
- DevSecOps – a mindset, culture, and set of technical practices. It provides communication, integration, automation, and close cooperation among all the people needed to plan, develop, test, deploy, release, and maintain a system.
- ART Flow – a state where an Agile Release Train (ART) delivers a continuous flow of value to the customer.
- Team Flow – a state in which Agile Teams deliver a continuous flow of value to the customer.
ARTs are self-managing and self-organizing teams of Agile teams that plan, commit, and execute together. Agile Team and ART roles help guide and direct the ART, aligning them to a shared mission and providing the necessary Lean governance.
- Product Management – responsible for defining and supporting the building of desirable, feasible, viable, and sustainable products that meet customer needs over the product-market lifecycle.
- System Architect – an individual or small cross-discipline team that applies Principle #2, Apply Systems Thinking. They define the overall architecture of the system, help identify Nonfunctional Requirements (NFRs), determine the significant elements and subsystems, and help design the interfaces and collaborations among them.
- Release Train Engineer (RTE) – a servant leader and the chief Scrum Master/Team Coach for the train. The RTE facilitates optimizing the flow of value by ensuring the ART events and artifacts function correctly, including the ART Kanban, Inspect & Adapt (I&A) workshop, ART Sync, and PI Planning.
- Business Owners – a small group of stakeholders with the business and technical responsibility for fitness for use, governance, and return on investment (ROI) for a Solution developed by an ART. They are primary stakeholders in the ART and actively participate in ART events.
- Agile Teams – a cross-functional group of ten or fewer individuals who can define, build, test, and deploy an increment of value in a short time box. Each ART comprises 5 – 15 Agile teams and includes the roles and infrastructure necessary to deliver fully working and tested business solutions.
- Product Owner (PO) – the content authority for the team backlog is responsible for defining stories and prioritizing the backlog.
- Scrum Master/Team Coach (SM/TC) – a servant leader and Agile team coach who helps the team remove impediments, facilitates team events, and fosters an environment for high-performing teams.
Essential SAFe has multiple activities to help coordinate the ARTs and teams:
- PI Planning – a cadence-based, face-to-face planning event that serves as the heartbeat of the ART, aligning all the teams on the ART to the shared mission.
- System Demo – provides an integrated view of new features from the most recent iteration delivered by all the teams in the ART. Each demo includes ART stakeholders with an objective measure of progress during a PI.
- Inspect & Adapt – a significant event where the current state of the solution is demoed and evaluated. Teams then reflect and identify improvement backlog items via a structured problem-solving workshop.
- Coach Sync – helps coordinate the dependencies of the ARTs and provides visibility into progress and impediments.
- Product Owner (PO) Sync – provides visibility into how well the ART is progressing toward meeting the ART PI objectives, discusses problems or opportunities with feature development, and assesses any scope adjustments.
- ART Sync – combines the Coach Sync and PO Sync into a single event for an ART.
SAFe Scrum teams and some SAFe Kanban teams manage their process with a series of regular events. These typically include the following:
- Iteration Planning – a team event in which an Agile team determines the iteration goals and how much of the team backlog they can commit to during an upcoming iteration. Team capacity determines the number of stories and enablers that are selected.
- Iteration Review – a cadence-based event at the end of each iteration in which the team reviews the previous increment’s results and adjusts the team backlog based on feedback.
- Iteration Retrospective – an event held at the end of the iteration for the Agile team to review its practices and identify ways to improve. The retrospective applies qualitative and quantitative information presented during the iteration review.
- Backlog refinement – an event is held once or twice during the iteration to refine, review, and estimate future stories and enablers in the team backlog.
- Team Sync – a short meeting (usually 15 minutes or less), typically held about daily, to inspect progress toward the iteration goal, communicate, and adjust upcoming planned work.
The following Essential SAFe items help the ART coordinate and deliver work:
- Features – services that fulfill stakeholders’ needs, sized to fit within the PI. Each includes a name, benefits hypothesis, and acceptance criteria.
- Enabler Features – supports the activities needed to extend the Architectural Runway to provide future business functionality, including exploration, architecture, infrastructure, and compliance.
- ART Epics – epics that a single ART can deliver.
- ART PI Objectives – describe the specific business and technical goals the ART intends to achieve in the upcoming PI.
- ART Backlog – a holding area for upcoming Features intended to address user needs and deliver business benefits for a single Agile Release Train (ART). It also contains the enabler features necessary to build the Architectural Runway.
- Vision – describes the future state of the solutions under development. It reflects the customer and stakeholder needs and the features proposed to meet them.
- Architectural Runway – consists of the existing code, components, and technical infrastructure necessary to implement prioritized, near-term features without excessive redesign and delay.
- Solution – a product, service, or system ARTs deliver to the enterprise’s internal or external customers.
- Solution Context – describes how the system will interface and be packaged and deployed in its operating environment.
- Stories – provides short descriptions of a small piece of desired functionality written in the user’s language.
- Enabler stories provide the exploration, infrastructure, architecture, or compliance groundwork that another story or feature needs.
- Team PI Objectives – summarized description of the specific business and technical goals an Agile team intends to achieve in the upcoming PI.
- Team Backlog – consists of user and enabler stories; most are identified during PI planning and backlog refinement events.
- Vision – describes a future view of the solution to be developed, reflecting customer and stakeholder needs and the Features and Capabilities proposed to address those needs.
- Roadmap – communicates planned ART and value stream deliverables and milestones over a timeline.
- System Team – a unique Agile team that assists in building and using the continuous delivery pipeline and, where necessary, validating full end-to-end system performance.
Ten Critical Success Factors
SAFe has proven to scale in all situations, from complex software and systems development to bond trading and medical devices to memory chips and fighter aircraft. But, with such a robust Framework, the question becomes: how closely does an organization need to follow various SAFe practices to get the desired result?
Also, when diagnosing SAFe implementation problems, it sometimes becomes apparent that enterprises may have skipped or stopped performing some of these critical practices. To support these challenges, the following Ten Critical Success Factors (Figure 2) highlight the minimal SAFe elements necessary for success.
#1 – Lean-Agile Principles
SAFe practices are grounded in fundamental Lean-Agile Principles. As organizations adopt SAFe, their continuous improvement activities find even better working methods. These principles guide those improvement efforts and ensure the adjustments move toward the ‘shortest sustainable lead time, with the best quality and value to people and society.’
#2 – Real Agile Teams and Trains
Real Agile Teams and ARTs are fully cross-functional and can define, build and test their work. They have everything and everyone necessary to produce a working, tested increment of the solution. They are self-organizing and self-managing, enabling value to flow more quickly with minimal overhead.
#3 – Cadence and Synchronization
Cadence provides a rhythmic pattern, which offers a steady heartbeat for the development process. It makes routine those things that can be routine. Synchronization allows multiple perspectives to be understood and resolved at the same time. For example, synchronization pulls the various assets of a system together to assess solution-level viability.
#4 – PI Planning
No event is more powerful in SAFe than PI planning which provides the rhythm for the ART and connects strategy to execution by ensuring business and technology alignment. PI Planning is where the people who do the work plan the work. Aligning the entire ART with a common vision and goal creates energy and a shared sense of purpose.
#5 – Customer Centricity, DevOps, and Release on Demand
SAFe enterprises create a positive customer experience across their products and services. They adopt a DevOps mindset, culture, and applicable technical practices to enable more frequent and higher-quality releases as the market demands. These practices provide faster validation of hypotheses and produce greater profits, increased employee engagement, and more satisfied customers
#6 – System Demo
The primary measure of the ART’s progress is the objective evidence provided by a working solution in the System Demo. Every two weeks, the entire system— the integrated work of all teams on the train for that iteration—is demoed to the train’s stakeholders. Stakeholders provide the feedback the train needs to stay on course and take corrective action. This feedback replaces other forms of governance that create additional work and slow flow.
#7 – Inspect and Adapt
Inspect and Adapt is a significant event held every PI. It is a regular time to reflect, collect data, and solve problems. The inspect and adapt event assembles teams and stakeholders to assess the solution and define improvements and actions needed to increase the following PI’s velocity, quality, and reliability.
#8 – IP Iteration
The Innovation and Planning Iteration occurs every PI and serves multiple purposes. It is an estimating buffer for meeting PI objectives and provides dedicated time for innovation, continuing education, PI Planning, and Inspect and Adapt. IP Iteration activities enable many Lean-Agile principles that foster business agility.
#9 – Architectural Runway
Architectural Runway consists of the existing code, components, and technical infrastructure necessary to implement high-priority, near-term features without excessive delay and redesign. Insufficient investment in the architectural runway slows the train and makes the ART’s delivery less predictable.
#10 – Lean-Agile Leadership
For SAFe to be effective, the enterprise’s leaders and managers must take responsibility for Lean-Agile adoption and success. Executives and managers must become Lean-Agile leaders who are trained—and then become trainers in—these leaner ways of thinking and operating. Without leadership taking responsibility for the implementation, the transformation will likely fail to achieve the full benefits.
 Knaster, Richard, and Dean Leffingwell. SAFe 5.0 Distilled: Achieving Business Agility with the Scaled Agile Framework. Addison-Wesley, 2020.
Last update: 30 November 2022