Where the benefits of SAFe come from

Are the advertised benefits of SAFe real? 
The Scaled Agile Framework claims the following benefits of a Lean-Agile transformation:
Benefits of SAFe, taken from scaledagileframework.com

These benefits are definitely realistic when the right levers are pulled in a traditional organization -  Let's take a look at how!

This article will focus on statements by William Edwards Deming and examine how SAFe implements these for visible benefits.

Productivity increase

Productivity isn't nearly as much a function of doing the right thing, as it is a function of stopping the wrong thing. Deming hypothesized that 95% of productivity is attributed to the system and only 5% to the individual:
"The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance." - attributed to Deming
Working in an ineffective system can reduce the performance to a twentieth of what would be possible - so when a theoretical 2000% boost is possible by creating "the perfect high productivity environment" (and hyperproductive teams prove that this is, indeed possible) - 20% is a single percent on the scale in an average corporate system(!)

Just having senior managers think about stopping some of the most egregious ways of wasting productivity and turning these into actions will result in the mentioned benefits.

Here are some ways in which SAFe addresses systemic productivity waste:

  • Reducing overly large delivery batch sizes
  • Increasing mutual understanding of requirements
  • Reducing the amount of handovers in the process
  • Reducing context switches for team members

SAFe's magic ingredient to productivity is the PI cadence with the ART.

Quality increase

Quality is the result of strategic decisions executed by the workforce. That is, by setting incentives and defining a route promoting low quality, the outcome will inevitably be low outcome. Impediments to quality are usually created above the team level:
"Quality is made in the board room. A worker can deliver lower quality, but she cannot deliver quality better than the system allows." - W.E. Deming
Some of the main drivers of low quality are lack of information and deadline pressure.

As Deming stated elsewhere, it's not enough that senior managers state that they want high quality (doesn't everyone?) - they need to get active in resolving impediments to quality. For this, they must examine and change those systemic constraints which lead to low quality.

Here are some ways in which SAFe addresses systemic impediments to quality:

  • Generating clarity of customer intent
  • Bringing the people together who should talk
  • Allowing teams to determine scope per time
  • Agreeing on a "Definition of Done"
  • Introducing meaningful feedback cycles into delivery
SAFe's magic ingredients to quality are the PI planning event and the System Demos.

Time-to-market decrease

It's not like people aren't trying, that they aren't busy, that they wouldn't be working fast enough. The problem is that they are often torn between many things and have no idea which of these is the most important or why these are important now:
"It's not enough to do your best: You must know what to do, then do your best." - W.E. Deming
That's why there is a lot of work in progress, many context switches and clogged delivery pipelines. According to Little's Law, Time-to-Market depends on how much work is in the system at any given point in time. Add more work to an overburdened system - and time-to-market goes up.

SAFe addresses time-to-market indirectly, albeit very effectively:
  • The PI Planning sets the focus for the upcoming 3 months.
  • Using an Economic framework scraps low-value work.
  • The PI cadence limits work in progress (WIP).
  • Iterations allow setting team-level course biweekly.
  • Continuous Delivery gets Done stuff shipped faster.
 If your organization had a history of delivery times 12 months and up, the 3-month cadence alone will easily reduce the Time-to-Market by 50% or more.

SAFe's magic ingredients to Time-to-Market are the PI cadence and the resolution of large batch delivery.

Morale increase

Organizations are great at demotivating employees by deriving their work of all meaning. People quit their job is when they hate it - when they can no longer identify with why they should be doing it. This happens most often when they can lo longer see the meaning of their contribution:
"When one understands who depends on me, then I may take joy in my work." - W.E. Deming
SAFe addresses detrimential impact on morale in the following ways:

  • Setting clear PI objectives 
  • A Program Board visualizing what the work contributes to
  • Working with "User Stories" makes the consumer visible
  • Allowing teams to focus on reaching a "Done" Increment
  • System Demos with real user interaction
In many large organizations, most of the work is - just work: long, arduous status meetings, constantly shifting priorities and binning unfinished work, creating documents which nobody will ever read etc. 

By abolishing these mechanisms, people get more satisfied - and when they are then replaced with real customer interactions (occasionally even with praise for a job well done), morale naturally gets a massive boost.

SAFe's magic ingredient, again, is the PI cadence and the System Demo.


The key benefits of SAFe are quickly realized by:
  • Clear Objectives
  • Dedicated teams and dedicated teams-of-teams
  • Cadences
  • Getting to Done
  • Closed feedback cycles
If one or more of these mechanisms is "adjusted for pragmatic customization", then SAFe becomes a relabelling exercise and the benefits become elusive.
There are other ways of setting up these mechanisms, SAFe is just one of the means to establish them.
Once these mechanisms are in place, that's not the end of the journey. it's just the beginning thereof.

As hinted in the article, it's even possible to achieve benefits exceeding those proposed by SAFe by a factor ten or higher - although few organizations have the dedication and courage to improve so relentlessly as to realize them.

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