None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met, and I make trial after trial until it comes.
Note: For more on SAFe Scrum, please read the additional Framework articles in the Scrum series, including SAFe Scrum, SAFe Scrum Master/Team Coach, Iteration Planning, Iteration Goals, Iteration Review, and Iteration Retrospective
Iterations are a standard, fixed-duration timebox during which Agile Teams and ARTs individually and collectively deliver incremental customer value while working towards the PI objectives.
Each Planning Interval (PI) typically has four two-week development Iterations (the subject of this article) followed by one Innovation and Planning (IP) Iteration. During these iterations, Agile Teams continuously explore, define, build, test, and deliver value to their customer. The IP iteration is an estimating buffer for meeting PI Objectives and provides dedicated time for innovation, continuing education, PI Planning, and Inspect and Adapt (I&A) events.
Agile Teams on the Agile Release Train (ART) collaborate within a PI to advance the solution toward the team and ART PI Objectives. All teams on the ART synchronize to the same iteration and PI cadence.
Teams plan, demo, and learn together, which helps them focus on both local concerns and the larger aim of the train. This alignment also enables teams to explore, integrate, deploy, and release value together and independently.
Agile Teams and ARTs fulfill their responsibilities by working in a series of iterations. Each is a Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) for the ART. Iterations are continuous and sequential, and a new iteration starts immediately after the previous one.
The PDCA cycle has four steps as follows:
- Plan: Determine the goals for the timebox and identify the work needed
- Do: Rapidly deliver small increments of the Solution
- Check: Review, demonstrate, and analyze the results and learnings
- Adjust: Adjust and start a new cycle
As Principle #7 – Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning describes how Agile Teams can better synchronize with other groups and manage dependencies by following the same rhythm. However, the practices for planning and execution within that rhythm may differ based on whether the team works in SAFe Scrum or SAFe Team Kanban, or a hybrid of methods. Scrum teams use standard and specific iteration events (see the SAFe Scrum article) to plan and manage their work. Kanban teams typically work in a continuous flow model but may also use iteration events.
Figure 1. illustrates the nested PDCA cycles for the PI, ART, and Agile Teams.
The following sections describe each element of these PDCA cycles.
PI PDCA Cycle
PI Planning starts the PI PDCA cycle, where teams partially fill their backlogs to meet the solution vision. Subsequently, the ART and its teams execute individual and combined iteration PDCA cycles within the PI. The ART objectively measures progress with a regular series of System Demos. The timebox ends with the PI System Demo, the first part of the Inspect and Adapt (I&A) event. This demo shows all the Features the ART has developed during the entire PI. During the I&A, Business Owners score PI objectives and assess product/solution performance. Additionally, everyone in the ART collaborates to identify and address systemic problems in the problem-solving workshop portion of the I&A.
The following sections describe the ART and Agile Team activities within each iteration in the PI.
Agile Release Train Activities
Getting feedback is critical to an ART’s high development velocity. Speed comes from fast learning, frequent integration points, and adaptation within the ART iteration PDCA cycles.
Figure 1. illustrates that each iteration is a short PDCA cycle in which the ART develops a significant portion of the PI objectives (See SAFe Principle #4, Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles, for more information.)
The following sections describe the activities for applying the PDCA cycle to the ART’s iterations — the combined work of all its teams.
- Planning for the system demo – Teams and ART stakeholders plan on what will be presented at the system demo and who will facilitate and demonstrate. The System Context, logistics, infrastructure, and staging environments must be established before the demo. Product Management communicates the system demo’s agenda and content to stakeholders, including those with business and customer interest in the new functionality.
- Planning for releases – During the upcoming iteration, the teams will continuously integrate new functionality into the solution’s baseline and Release on Demand. The ART needs to plan for these releases and be ready to assess compliance and quality standards and business and customer impact.
- Delivering Value – Completed features are released to customers to achieve the intended outcomes. While the ART can automate many release elements via the Continuous Delivery Pipeline, manual oversight is often required, such as communicating with ART stakeholders and engaging them in the delivery process.
- Removing impediments and addressing risks – ART stakeholders—particularly the Release Train Engineer (RTE), Product Management, and System Architect— work with teams throughout the iteration to address obstacles. Occasionally, escalation to Business Owners and other stakeholders may be needed to remediate critical issues.
- Executing the system demo – The system demo provides an opportunity to inspect the ART’s combined increment at the end of every iteration, assess progress, get feedback, and improve both the product and development process.
- Conducting sync events – The ART holds synchronization meetings (for example, PO and coach syncs) to ensure progress, help facilitate the resolution of cross-team and ART dependencies and resolve other problems.
- Measuring and monitoring progress – Progress towards PI objectives is measured and monitored. The ROAM board created during PI planning is typically reviewed during the PO or coach syncs to ensure those responsible for owning or mitigating a risk take the necessary actions.
- Reviewing the progress of improvements from the previous I&A – The RTE and Scrum Master/Team Coaches work together to ensure the ART completes the relevant work needed to accomplish the identified I&A improvements during the PI.
- Reviewing outcome and flow metrics – SAFe’s three measurement domains, outcomes, flow, and competency, are periodically reviewed to assess progress, support better decision-making, and help identify improvement opportunities for the ART’s people, products, and processes. (See the Measure & Grow article for more information.)
- Continually refine the ART Backlog – The ART backlog is continuously prioritized and adjusted to ensure that progress is tracking to the PI objectives and that customers benefit from the solutions under development.
- Improving the ART’s processes – Measuring progress and gaining fast feedback provides the data the ART needs to improve the development process.
- Addressing feedback – Getting rapid feedback from Customers, Business Owners, and other stakeholders is essential to ensure the ART is building a solution that is feasible, viable, desirable, and sustainable (see Design Thinking).
Agile Teams achieve a fast, reliable flow of value to the Customer by executing a full plan-do-check-adjust (PDCA) cycle each iteration. Activities include:
- Refining the Team Backlog – Teams refine their backlogs in a collaborative dialogue between the teams, Customers, and other stakeholders. This refinement breaks down barriers between the business and the development team, helps identify and address dependencies, and eliminates waste, handoffs, and delays. Story acceptance criteria increase the requirements’ clarity, leverage the team’s collective knowledge and creativity, and create understanding, engagement, and ownership.
- Team iteration planning – SAFe Scrum teams collaborate at the start of each iteration during the Iteration Planning event. They determine how much team backlog they can deliver during the upcoming timebox and record that work in the iteration backlog. They summarize their plan into a set of Iteration Goals. SAFe Kanban teams also plan as needed (often weekly) to coordinate their work, replenish stories in their backlog, and address dependencies and fixed date commitments for the iteration. They often find it helpful to create iteration goals, which provide stakeholders and management with a shared language for maintaining alignment, communicating progress, managing dependencies, and making necessary adjustments during PI execution.
- Planning for team and system demos – Teams plan how to demo the stories they defined during and after PI planning to implement features and meet their PI objectives. ‘Beginning with the end in mind’ facilitates planning and alignment, fostering a more thorough understanding of the functionality needed ahead of iteration execution.
- Delivering stories and high-value quality increments of value – Teams create value within the ART’s development cadence and synchronization requirements, releasing on demand as business needs dictate. They build and utilize a Continuous Delivery Pipeline (CDP), which helps ensure that Continuous Exploration, Continuous Integration, and Continuous Deployment activities occur as continually as possible.
- Conducting team sync and demos – Teams continuously coordinate and synchronize their work, inspecting progress and creating an action plan to coordinate current and upcoming work. They demo completed work immediately to get fast feedback.
- Monitoring the progress of stories – Teams use a Kanban board to visualize all active and pending work, workflow states, WIP limits, risks, and impediments.
- Conducting retrospectives – Teams reflect on the iteration and derive new ideas to improve the increment and process. Depending upon the method, teams may do this reflection at the Iteration Retrospective or periodically as needed. Retrospectives help ensure continuous improvements and that the knowledge gained can inform the problem-solving part of the I&A.
- Reviewing improvement stories from prior iterations – Teams review the results of their previous improvement stories to ensure they have sufficiently addressed identified problems and their root causes.
- Reviewing demos with the team’s stakeholders – Teams demo their completed work as soon as possible to get fast Customer and stakeholder feedback. Scrum teams typically conduct a more formal Iteration Review to understand their progress better.
- Refining the team backlog – Teams continually refine their backlog to ensure it always contains some stories ready for implementation. During refinement, teams review upcoming user stories and Features to discuss, estimate and establish preliminary acceptance criteria.
- Improving the team’s processes – Based on the outcome, flow, and competency metrics, the team identifies their process improvements and addresses impediments and delays that otherwise interrupt the flow of value.
 Knaster, Richard, and Dean Leffingwell. SAFe 5.0 Distilled, Achieving Business Agility with the Scaled Agile Framework. Addison-Wesley, 2020
 Cockburn, Alistair. Using Both Incremental and Iterative Development. STSC CrossTalk 21, 2008.
Last update: 20 December 2022