Sunday, January 20, 2013

Scaled Agile Framework Applied - Part 1/5: Introduction and Context

Since encountering Dean Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework(SAFe), I have presented the model to dozens of senior executives and middle management from numerous enterprises grappling with the question of how to effectively scale agile.  Without exception, the ‘Big Picture’ resonates.  It is easily incorporated in their mental model of the key ingredients in delivering enterprise scale outcomes, and a 1 hour overview leads to the response ‘I can believe in that’. 

The challenge, of course, arises when you start to delve into the follow-on question – “Now how do I make it work in my special situation?”  Like any good framework, it is designed on a set of principles.   Implementation requires leveraging your understanding of the principles to tailor the detail to your situation.

In this series of posts, I will endeavour to illustrate with working examples the fashion in which it has been applied in the group I have been guiding for the past 9 months.  


The success of this implementation has attracted a great deal of interest in both the enterprise the group belongs to and other Australian companies grappling with scaling agility.   On a weekly basis, groups visit to understand ‘how it is done’.  

Over time, we have established a ‘2-hour tour format’ that walks the model.   Tours always begin at an A0 poster of the ‘big picture’.  We spend 5 or 10 minutes giving a brief overview, then proceed to work our way through the portfolio, program, feature and team kanban walls illustrating the way work flows through the layers of the model and the type of discussions they facilitate.  My intent in this series will be as much as possible to provide a simulation of a physical tour.  It will be structured as follows:

  • Part 1 - Introduction and Context
  • Part 2 - Demand management and the portfolio kanban
  • Part 3 - Program level pipeline management and the program kanban
  • Part 4 - In-play work and the program level feature wall
  • Part 5 - Results to-date and Conclusion 


The setting is a large enterprise in the midst of an Agile transformation.    They experienced good success with many smaller agile projects, but encountered significant challenges in the early stages of applying it to major programs of work.  Over the course of 2012, 4 major groups across the enterprise successfully adopted SAFe.  Each applied it to different problems and tailored it to suit – the one I will be writing about focuses on business intelligence and data warehousing. 

In April, I heard Dean describe his typical approach with a new client as “give me your worst program, I’ll fix that first and we’ll keep adding a program at a time from there”.   It’s a fairly apt description of the case at hand.   Agile project teams existed, but knitting them together into a program with appropriate cohesion, visibility and governance continued to be traumatic.  The model was applied first at the program level (the 2nd and 3rd layers of the framework), then extended up to the portfolio level and additional programs are now being transitioned in.

One other piece worth noting is that we are not yet describing a full enterprise-level SAFe implementation.   It is being actively explored, and what is known so far is that it will require 2 additional portfolio layers as the various groups are brought together.  I will be describing an implementation keeping 3 programs or delivery groups and roughly 200 people busy, but the eventual target involves more than 5,000.

Having set the scene, in Part 2 I will explore demand management and the portfolio layer implementation.