What Are the SAFe Agile Principles

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Last updated on
07th Jun, 2022
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17th May, 2021
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What Are the SAFe Agile Principles

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle 

The Scaled Agile Framework has since its inception provided huge business benefits to organizations implementing it. This has driven the need for SAFe professionals who can successfully lead Agile transformations in organizations by implementing this framework 

According to Scaled Agile, Inc. more than 800,000 practitioners have been trained in SAFewhich further proves the credibility and demand of this certification. In this blog we attempt to understand the SAFe principles and how they help businesses to maximise value, drive innovation and create high performing teams.  

Get to know more about safe core values.

SAFe Agile Framework Core Values:  

It's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” – Roy E Disney.

SAFe lays out 4 core values that enterprises need to imbibe before they start their scaled agile journey. These values represent the fundamental beliefs that are going to be critical in determining the effectiveness of the SAFe implementation. It does help dictate behaviour and action for everyone who participates in a SAFe portfolio. 

Safe Core Values

SAFe Lean-Agile Principles: 

SAFe leans heavily on the application Lean and Agile at scale. In this particular article, we are going to deep dive and tap into the nooks and crannies of what is really the foundation of any successful SAFe implementation – The 10 underlying Lean-Agile principles of SAFe. Before, we look at these (depicted in Fig 1 below), would like to highlight that Scaled Agile, Inc. has listed these principles as ‘immutable’ – meaning these principles are not expected to change over time.

Ten SAFe principles as defined by Scaled Agile.com


Detailed explanation about the SAFe Agile Principles: 

Now that we know what the ten SAFe Lean agile principles are, let's try and understand what each principle brings to the table, in terms of enhancing agility and imbibing lean concepts at the core of your organizations work culture.  

  1. Take an economic view: Understanding key value streams within the business delivery framework is going to be of utmost importance to enable decision making that will have the least impact and deliver the most value to the customer. By doing so, we ensure that each value stream opens a broader economic framework.  
  2. Apply systems thinking: The idea here is to gather a factual holistic view of the system being developed or enhanced, in order to ensure principle #1 is met, in terms of maximizing its economic outcome. SAFe also recommends that to get this right, systems thinking should be applied not only to the systems being developed but also to the organization that is building the system.  
  3. Assume variability; preserve options:  In a true agile fashion, keeping the enterprise design lightweight and evolving over various stages of product development will result in quicker adaptability or course correction with respect to a volatile market situation.  
  4. Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles:  Keep your iterations short to allow time for improvements and customer feedback. Time to market is always a key aspect and it doesn’t hurt pondering regularly over the improvement actions with respect to cycle times of individual work packets. This enables faster integrated learning cycles and the teams need to be coached on leveraging various tools that help with this.  
  5. Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems:  The mindset to measure success correctly and quantitatively is achieved by adoption of early and continuous integration processes that can be applied iteration after iteration in a near production-like environment.  
  6. Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths: This is a pretty straightforward Kanban-ish practice right out of the Lean approach. Mentioned below are the 3 continuous flow enablers, as given in Scaled Agile.  
    1. Visualize and limit the amount of work in progress (WIP). This increases throughput and limits demand to actual capacity.  
    2. Reduce the batch sizes of work to facilitate fast and more reliable flow.  
    3. Manage queue lengths to reduce the wait times for new functionality. 
  7. Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning: This principle lays importance to the means and methods of cadenced synchronization that is needed to ensure multiple challenges are resolved amicably. A perfect combination of synchronising in a cadenced manner is like an orchestra, which helps with the cross-domain planning orchestrated by an RTE, thus playing beautiful music to the ears of the stakeholders.  
  8. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers:  Development of more contextual knowledge and applying them across various domains will help with removing SME dependency and also cross skilling teams widely. It also syncs up with today’s hyper competitive world where it’s all about effective employee engagement 
  9. Decentralize decision-making: While some decisions that have long-lasting implications are best kept centralised (like providing a steer at an enterprise level of the tech stack adoption)  the vast majority of the decisions below these need to be decentralised and left to the teams. This ensures one doesn’t fall into the pit of a command-and-control hierarchy.   
  10. Organize around value:  Measuring business outcomes will help gain a competitive advantage which is what business agility demands. Lean principles focus on delivering the maximum customer value in the shortest sustainable lead time, whilst providing the highest possible quality to the customerGetting the right product out into the right market at the right time, is absolutely critical.

Why the Focus on Principles? 

A question that may arise in your mind now is “Why should I have or remember another 10 principles, when I already have the 12 guiding principles from the Agile Manifesto?”. Fair enough, but let me explain.  

The creators of SAFe acknowledge and re-iterate on the fact that SAFe was built on top of the existing lean agile principles and many other knowledge bodies that various thought leaders have left behind in their journey of Agile.  

However, it's important to highlight that almost 20 years ago when the lean agile principles were laid down, there wasn’t much distributed (offshore/onshore) development happening, at least not to the extent it is happening now. Enterprises today have gotten bigger and more sophisticated, hence SAFe really had to synthesize this existing foundational body of knowledge, along with the lessons learned from hundreds of deployments. 

Not all challenges that enterprises face during their scaled agile journey can be fixed by the practices taught by SAFe. Every challenge may be unique in its own way and hence the necessity of the 10 underlying principles, which can be referred to as a guide, which the teams can fall back on, and make sure that they are moving continuously on the path to the goal of the House of Lean: “shortest sustainable lead time, with best quality and value to people and society.”

SAFe adoption challenges – 14th Annual State of Agile report by VersionOne

One of the most imminent challenges that organizations will face with SAFe adoption, is lack of effective leadership. The top two challenges listed in the most recent State of Agile report by VersionOne also reflects the same.  

Adequate management support is key before embarking on any large-scale transformation and that is exactly why we need the SAFe principles to help emphasise the role of Lean Agile leaders in the transformation. True SAFe leaders understand and embrace the Lean-Agile Mindset, apply systems thinking, induce business thinking and operation, and impart these to others 

It’s not enough that management commit themselves to quality and productivity, they must know what it is they must do. Such a responsibility cannot be delegated. —W. Edwards Deming 

Why and when to use a Scaled Agile Framework?  

SAFe adoption has naturally increased over the years. The latest annual State of Agile report mentions anywhere between 5-6 % in the last 12 months alone, something that organizations should take notice of. Something is clearly working for organizations that have adopted SAFe as their scaling framework.  

 A superheo meme depicting the popularity of SAFe in the current industry.

Numbers don’t lie, and SAFe is clearly the leading framework when it comes to organizational agility scaling. While there are multiple other scaling frameworks like DAD (Disciplined Agile Delivery), LeSS (Large Scale Scrum), NexusSoS (Scrum of Scrums) etc, which are also pretty effectiveSAFe continues to be the leading framework for a reason. While I would like to dedicate a separate blog for that, let me give a quick preview as to WHY!  

SAFe dwells deeply into defining heterogeneous software delivery pipelines that govern business value flow with the right combination of peopleprocess and technology. Any disruptions in the flow of business value need to be monitored through appropriate metrics whilst keeping traceability back to business requirements at each step of product development.  

SAFe adoption has increased by 5% over the last 12 months – 14th Annual State of Agile report by VersionOne

SAFe is a framework. It’s called a framework since there is a huge difference between a framework and a methodology and clearly SAFe is not to be understood as a methodology. It's not a set of rules or items in a checklist that you can cross off and then say that you have mastered the path of achieving business agility. NO! It's not as simple.  

While working with and organising a series of largely independent cross-functional Agile teamsnew impediments will begin to emerge and each one will be different. SAFe will not have a readymade solution for this and hence it's important to know that SAFe cannot be applied the same way in every context!  

Differences Between SAFe and Other Agile Practices 

Unlike other scaling approaches, SAFe is very prescriptive. It provides organizations with a step-by-step approach of how to go about their SAFe adoption. It also provides different levels of scaling with roles and events that support the execution and alignment at various levels. 

The exact differences and comparisons of SAFe with other scaling approaches is a separate topic in itself but in principle, the primary thing that stands out with respect to SAFe is that it encourages the practice of flow-based roadmaps. This requires making changes one at a time, identifying gaps and addressing them by training teams at both a skill and cultural level.  

SAFe helps get traction of the broader vision/goals and hence makes teams work together to deliver value  not only for each other, but the end customer as well.  

Key take-aways: 

  • SAFE is a Framework – not a methodology: It is essential that you believe that SAFe will put you on a path that is truly agile. You need to re-think why you considered SAFe in the first place. It may bring in some clarity.  
  • Configure SAFe as per your organizational needs: SAFe as a framework is very much configurable. Use it to your advantage. Use our own deep contextual knowledge to create new approaches which will be favourable as a step towards business agility. 
  • Develop Lean Agile leaders: Only effective leaders can change the system. Train and educate the leadership who can then actively drive the change. Adopting a lean agile mindset helps create effective leaders that empower every individual in their teams and that is when innovation and creativity will flourish. 
  • Remember SAFe is not applicable for every given context: Only implement SAFe in those parts of the organisation where it makes senseIt's not a one-stop solution for all your problems. 
  • Fight complexity with SAFe and not vice versa SAFe can get crazy with terms and terminologies and its quite natural to get overwhelmed, as you are scaling up the process at various levels. Hence its important that the right set of change agents (SPCs) are employed to carry out SAFe adoption. This can ensure that complexity is addressed at the very beginning.  

Conclusion: 

SAFe suggests implementation steps along with its core values and immutable principles. All these should be closely examined and tweaked (where necessary) to the needs that are specific to your organization. Only then will you achieve the true benefits of this most widely used scaling framework. 

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Raj Kumar

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Dileep Rajkumar , a seasoned software and agile delivery expert, who specialises in quantitative product development for large digital transformations. A self motivated individual, always committed to helping various teams and individuals, realise their potential and deliver quality (incremental) software!!