Is SAFe lean – or is Lean safe?

Feb 08, 2016 / by Riku Sarapisto

Among Finnish development community, we are very eager in taking new models, methods, frameworks and technologies into use. Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is one of the new silver bullet candidates that might resolve our challenges in responsiveness to ever-increasing speed of change in business. Can we really lean on SAFe?

SAFe getting more lean

SAFe is a good framework to mid-to-large (50+ FTE) development organizations. It depicts great structure for managing development flow from family of strategies through portfolio management, programs, and multi-disciplined teams up to DevOps (continuous delivery/deployment).

And surprise, surprise! SAFe 4.0 has just arrived here with a stronger abstraction and articulation of the core theory behind the practices. Now it is not only “Scaled Agile Framework” but also “Scalable Agile Framework”. SAFe 4.0 put more focus on value streams, management of flow, Kanban, Lean Product Design (as opposed to Lean Manufacturing), Communities of Practice (CoP) and adaptability – good development indeed!

SAFe draws a good picture of what (and why) needs to be in place when it comes to roles, responsibilities, skills and structures – but it does not tell how to get there. We must keep in mind that SAFe web site is the homepage of a commercial consulting company. It is a good one, rich in content and very well done.

When they have managed to convince you that this is the way to go, they will train your people and send experienced consultants to lead you in your lean and agile journey. There is absolutely nothing wrong in this approach. The chances for success are a lot better this way than if you will try the transformation by your own.

But is SAFe really Agile or Lean? SAFe faces challenges in managing architecture, innovations and rapid evolution of requirements. The consumerization, in both service and product development world, sets totally new targets to the speed to get things done and to respond to changes.

Personally, I do not see SAFe alone being the right answer. Even it tries to follow lean principles to avoid waste in operations and organization, focusing on the continuous flow of value, continuous improvement, and empowering teams. The lean stuff is hidden in the SAFe documentation, but it is there when you read it carefully.

Another approach to scale Agile

There is another approach to scale agile development, Large Scale Scrum (LeSS). LeSS starts from teams’ perspective and depicts what has to be in place when number of agile teams increases from one to dozens or even to hundreds. Their web site has a lot of good knowledge worth of further studying. LeSS follows agile principles more carefully than SAFe. LeSS lacks of enterprise level structure that SAFe depicts well. You can find the lean principles when digging with a stick. But alas, the same challenges are here too – the innovation management at the top. How can these frameworks call themselves agile while deprecating the importance of speed of innovation?

Is DAD the silver bullet for our challenges?

My searches for the silver bullet led me to Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) model. DAD is a non-prescriptive model. It is a process decision framework, a hybrid approach, which extends Scrum with proven strategies from Agile Modeling (AM), Extreme Programming (XP), Rational Unified Process (RUP), Kanban, Lean Software Development, and several other methods.

On the highest level there are four different lifecycle approaches available: (1) basic agile with scrum construction supercharged with RUP, (2) advanced/lean lifecycle, (3) Lean continuous delivery lifecycle, and (4) exploratory lean startup lifecycle. Unfortunately the DAD web site is far behind the two other models in being usable – but not in the quality of the content. DAD has great approach to innovation management borrowed from Eric Ries’ Lean Startup book and the agile architecture is covered in enough details.

There is a way to go still

How can we apply all this good to our organization? The transformation journey will not be easy, nor does it happen overnight, but it will be worth of doing as an essential cornerstone of sharpening our competitive edge. I believe the winners of tomorrow are the organizations that will learn to learn, and improve continuously – and faster than competitors do. This is what we need among the development community to respond to the changes the digitalization causes to the business.

Still, there is no one silver bullet. “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” (George E.P. Box.)

Topics: Lean, Agile

Riku Sarapisto

Written by Riku Sarapisto