Last week, I had the pleasure of having dinner with a Principal Systems Engineer who works for a large financial enterprise. He candidly discussed some of the organizational challenges his development team faces when trying to deliver and deploy solutions, and you could hear the frustration in his voice. “Too many reviews and approvals are required just to reach the point of deploying solutions into production.” I asked if they were using SAFe, and he responded, “Unfortunately, yes.” According to Scaled Agile Inc. (SAI), Gartner names SAFe the #1 most considered and adopted framework for scaling Agile.

So why did my friend struggle with SAFe? Right away, I knew that his company was not implementing SAFe correctly; honestly, implementing SAFe correctly is a journey. A true business transformation won’t happen overnight, but setting the foundation in place makes the journey easier.

Issues with SAFe

Two common issues seem to surface frequently. The first issue is the Lack of Leadership Support. Some of the biggest complaints come from frustrated developers (like my friend), stating that senior management is too comfortable with the status quo and not interested or actively engaged in changing the existing development-to-production process.
How did we get to this point? There’s an exciting “do-or-die” entrepreneurial spirit early in a business or new-initiative startup phase. First, with active support from the CEO, a small team is formed with clear business goals and objectives. This team typically consists of application developers, network/system engineers, and administrators – all skills needed to achieve the business goals and objectives. It’s all hands on deck as this small team frequently collaborates to solve problems while focusing on delivering value to their customers as quickly as possible. What a fun time! Many of these team members often form life-long friendships.

But let’s consider what happens as the small business grows more successful. The company leadership, with good intentions, desires to keep the momentum going by making organizational changes. Functional groups are aligned and formed with supervisors to oversee their work. Processes are documented and followed. Review boards are formed. The operations staff, charged with keeping the production systems online and operational, naturally resist changes. A development team lead may decide to implement agile methodologies and develop faster, but they still face organizational resistance to deployments. For more information, check out John P. Kotter’s book “Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World” in which he describes the dual operating system.

The second issue that frequently surfaces is the inability to change quickly. Some large businesses that used to exist just five to ten years ago no longer exist today, because they lacked “business agility” – the ability to adapt to changing technologies and Customer requirements.

Tips for Navigating SAFe

Tip #1: Start small and start where you are

SAI offers a SAFe Implementation Roadmap (see https://scaledagileframework.com/implementation-roadmap/). Enlist the support of a SAFe Practice Consultant (SPC) to lead a SAFe Executive Workshop and invite the company executives and leaders. If your next-level manager is the highest executive that attends the Workshop, then start there to form your team of Lean-Agile Change Agents. These individuals will form your Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE) and become your advocates to drive cultural change within the business. Focus on training the LACE change agents.

Tip #2: Don’t underestimate the importance of Value Stream Mapping

Understanding your business’ operational value stream is so important. It’s a foundational step that will help you identify the development value streams and their associated Agile Release Trains (ARTs).
I like to use the familiar grocery store example. Customers enter the grocery store, grab a shopping cart, walk the aisles placing desired items in the cart, go through the checkout to pay, and then exit the building. That’s our operational value stream. We know the customers and understand the “operational” process from a customer’s viewpoint. If that process is efficient and costs are reasonable, then customers are generally happy and will return in the future.
Notice that I didn’t mention any supporting systems like the automatic doors to enter/exit the building, inventory systems, or price scanner systems, all backed by highly available systems, applications, and databases. These development systems enable the operating value stream to be as efficient as possible.
A Value Mapping Exercise will lead you to think about who your customers are and to logically group the supporting development systems such that you can build Agile Release Trains responsible for developing and sustaining these systems.

Tip #3: Make sure your ARTs are truly cross-functional teams

SAI says, “ARTs are cross-functional and have all the capabilities needed to define, build, validate, release, and, where applicable, operate solutions.” In other words, ARTs are empowered with an entrepreneurial mindset to develop, deliver, and support the solutions that they develop. In other words, all of the development, functional testing, security testing, quality testing, etc. is “on the ART”. It seems obvious, but all too often, organizations will organize their ARTs around Functions, basically repeating old waterfall habits. Also important, and related to this tip, is to provide role-based SAFe certification training to the ART team members. Most people will rise to the occasion once they understand what their role requires and how to perform the tasks.
Tip #4: Focus on Flow
One of the things I love about SAFe 6.0 is SAI’s focus on the flow of value. Clearly, siloed functional organizations and milestone reviews slow down the flow of values to Customers. My friend mentioned “too many reviews and approvals.” To counter this, we really need to push decision-making to the ARTs. Replace Architecture Review Boards with periodic in-progress reviews led by Architects “on the ART,” which focus on communicating and educating the team about the system architecture. Avoid multiple peer reviews prior to releasing documents. Instead, the document authors can schedule a single peer review with all ART stakeholders. Once the document author incorporates those changes, the author is authorized to publish it. Of course, the author also has the authority to schedule another peer review, but the point is that they are the ones making that decision, along with the ART’s product manager.

SAI says, “Surviving in the age of digital is not guaranteed. Business agility isn’t an option; it’s imperative. Even businesses that don’t consider themselves Information Technology (IT) or software companies—professional services, financial services, manufacturers, healthcare institutions, defense contractors, government agencies, and more—are now all highly dependent on their ability to rapidly produce new, high-quality, innovative, digitally-enabled products and services. (© Scaled Agile, Inc.)”

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