3 Reasons Your SAFe® Journey Has Lost Its Way

Tasktop Technologies
5 min readSep 23, 2021

With the 2021 Global SAFe® Summit only a week away (September 27 — October 1), the software delivery community will come together once again to tackle that ever-pressing question: just do you marry technical agility with business agility to support customers more effectively?

The most popular framework for scaling software development, SAFe continues to serve as a one-stop-shop for Lean-Agile practices. Yet despite many success stories, not everyone is realizing SAFe’s potential. More often than not, well-meaning but misguided SAFe efforts derail because organizations are implementing SAFe for SAFe’s sake.

A glowing article. A jaw-dropping keynote. A competitor’s beaming blog on their scaling agile success; often a SAFe journey (or any investment in a methodology) starts with FOMO. With the best of intentions, leadership signs off on the investment with little to no context, hoping that business success will naturally follow.

Typically this ends up with organizations adopting SAFe in name only — going through the training, certifications and ceremonies — without actually changing any of their practices. From the outset, there is a dangerous gulf in understanding in terms of what SAFe is and isn’t, and what it can and can’t do. Leadership typically understands the gist but not the deeper mechanics like their teams do, who have been through all the training and certification.

This inevitability leads to leadership becoming restless and frustrated with ROI when business outcomes do not improve. Teams, meanwhile, can become demotivated, frustrated and fall out of love with their job. In our experience working for Fortune 100 companies, governments and other large-scale organizations, we’ve identified three common reasons that SAFe initiatives fall flat:

1. Applying Old Mindsets to New Roles

Organizations can get caught in the trap of using SAFe terminology without really changing the way that they work. Simply calling an existing team a “Scrum” team without reimagining how they are organized won’t improve outcomes.

2. Forgetting Agile Principles

Another reason SAFe fails is when Agile principles are not internalized. They may form a great release train with five Scrum teams but they don’t limit work-in-progress (WIP); meaning everyone is overcapacity and you’re trying to cram way too much down the pipeline. So instead of going faster and meeting outcomes sooner, the opposite happens; you clog the system. Naturally, they will blame the framework for failure, but in reality, they didn’t implement the core principles that the framework is based on.

3. Following The Book

Organizations that try to adopt every part of SAFe at once will also struggle. The SAFe diagram is a simplified visual representation of a very complex system of systems — and even then it can still look overwhelming. Development teams comprising 150+ people will try and fit every role and do every practice. But it’s not meant to be followed word by word, it’s a framework that’s meant to kickstart a conversation. Allow time to figure out what parts work for a specific organization and their specific problem(s).

Find the Compelling Reason to Change — and Measure Your Progress

So how do we move away from SAFe for SAFe’s sake? The key is to not lose faith; the problem won’t be the methodology, just the approach. As is often the case with most things, returning to basics and the problem you’re trying to solve is a powerful first step.

Asking yourself Why are we doing this? can lead you back into the light. Whether it’s reducing time-to-market, improving quality or enhancing customer retention; a clear goal can provide the organization with purpose and get you back on track. It also begins the vital shift away from “the what” towards “the how” — everyone can begin looking into ways of reaching the goal sooner by reducing friction.

The latest iteration of SAFe (5.1) helps teams find reduce friction with a comprehensive, scalable yet simple measurement model that focuses on three key measures:

  • Outcomes: Are your solutions meeting the needs of customers and business?
  • Competency: Are you proficient in practices delivering customer value?
  • Flow: How efficient are you at delivering value to customers?

SAFe’s adoption of Flow Metrics -from Dr. Mik Kersten’s Flow Framework® -helps leadership focus on establishing clear goals and removing obstacles for teams, equipped with the feedback that Flow Metrics provides. These specific value stream metrics measure software delivery value streams against business outcomes:

  • Flow Velocity: How much customer value are we delivering over time?
  • Flow Efficiency: Is waste decreasing in our processes? What are the delays and wait times slowing us down?
  • Flow Time: Is time-to-market getting shorter to outpace the competition and shorten feedback loops?
  • Flow Load: Are we balancing demand vs. capacity to ensure future productivity

In addition to these Flow Metrics, there is also Flow Distribution, which looks at the trade-offs between value creation and value protection work, which helps communicate tradeoffs and priorities to ensure a sustainable pace of delivery.

Breathe Life Back Into the Agile and Safe Practices

Flow Metrics are a simple yet powerful concept that help you measure your SAFe practices-such as sprint goals, feature hypothesis and your PI objectives-against business outcomes to ensure you’re actually improving over time. If SAFe is the map, Flow Metrics are the ultimate GPS to guide you in real-time with critical information on what to do and where to go, constantly reflecting your current state and what you need to do to get better .

Answer critical questions like:

  • Are we capable of rapid response to market changes?
  • With each PI, are we delivering the right mix of work?
  • Is time-to-market getting shorter?
  • Is quality improving?
  • Are our teams actively engaged or reverting to old ways of working (such as Waterfall)?
  • Do we have visibility into upstream and downstream bottlenecks?

Change is Possible — An Outcome-Driven Approach to SAFe Success

Download this e-book to gain a deeper understanding of how Flow Metrics can help transformation leaders create an outcome-driven organization that embraces change. Learn how you can harness real-time insights that help you address some very real challenges and concerns that development teams feel such as frustration, friction, wasted time and effort, and cognitive overload:

Written by: Patrick Anderson

Originally published at https://blog.tasktop.com on September 23, 2021.



Tasktop Technologies

Value Stream Management platform. Experts in moving from Project to Product. Helping enterprises to master software at scale and thrive in the Age of Digital.