I recently went through the SAFe SPC4 class, which was quite interesting in the light of my earlier post about “my problem with SAFe“. First and foremost, I wanted to understand SAFe better and kept an open mind throughout the experience.

Here are some first impressions:

  • The guys from Scaled Agile do understand Agile well and spent a good amount of time on the underlying principles.
  • SAFe is supportive of self-organizing and empowered teams, which is a good thing and maybe not what I would’ve expected.
  • The SAFe hierarchy does not imply that all items always flow top down. Work items can also be inserted horizontally and the framework includes a bottom up flow of information and collaboration. This is different from other hierarchical scaling models I’ve seen.
  • In SAFe 4, value streams were introduced and there’s admittedly not all that much experience with them. The transition from operational to development-centric value streams in the process of figuring the structure out is interesting but also confusing and not very clear. It’s still somewhat illusive to me how this is going to work and how to get from there to release trains.
  • Lots of material to cover in SPC4, lots of stuff…
  • I expected the framework to be more prescriptive, but as a matter of fact, the further up you go in the hierarchy, the more fuzzy it gets around roles, processes, etc. to the point where I wanted more information.
  • The PI planning ceremonies, which are to be run as big room planning events and are arguably the core of SAFe together with release trains, are logistically challenging and incredibly expensive. One could even argue that the PI (planning and innovation) sprint at the end of the PI is a sprint lost to make room for PI planning. I wonder if there are cheaper and easier ways to accomplish this.
  • The jury is still out whether pre- and post PI planning events are sufficient to really pull off a value stream planning.
  • Dependencies are what kills big Agile systems and while SAFe does a decent job of surfacing them, I’m not sensing they have magic sauce to deal with them either.
  • With any decent mass, i.e. number of teams, I’m struggling to see how sticky notes and paper can work during PI planning events although that is being advertised. I tend to think that without a decent ALM, this will be very hard to pull off and even more so with distributed teams.
  • Did I mention that the logistics of planning multiple release trains concurrently seems outrageous?
  • Release trains (ARTs) and PIs assume a lot of maturity, including the ability to more or less lock scope for an average of 10 weeks. That may be a challenge in quite a few environments. And starting teams that haven’t done Agile yet as release trains seems like a pretty big jump. And how do we deal with teams who can only plan 1-2 sprints ahead but are part of the ART due to dependencies with the other teams in the train?
  • SAFe 4.0 speaks to Kanban teams participating in release trains, but it’s not unite clear how exactly this will work and whether teams will be required to break some Kanban rules in the process. Scrum seems like a better fit.
  • I like the principle of “taking an economic view”, which I feel will be helpful at various levels.
  • SAFe does not mess with the team-level roles including the Product Owner. I like that the teams continue to have someone in the team that plays this critical role.
  • Not much time is spent talking about situations or circumstances where SAFe is not a good fit. For example: what about teams with volatile backlogs or teams that are able to function rather independently?
  • Scaled Agile itself is not so much a consulting company, but seems to focus more on and monetize education, training and licensing their materials.

Overall, this was a good class and really helped me understand the framework. Am I a believer? Not quite yet; as they say: “the proof is in the pudding”. That said, the number of companies claiming success with SAFe seems to indicate that the SAFe guys are onto something. I’m encouraged by Dean Leffingwell himself saying that he’s not married to SAFe itself and doesn’t get emotional about it. It’s simply something he found works pretty well, but if he finds something that proves to work better, he’ll do that instead. I’m glad I have SAFe in my toolbox now and am curious to try some stuff out!