Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

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Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe): this article provides a practical explanation of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Next to what it is, this article also highlights the core values, the 4 SAFe configurations, certification, the challenges in upscaling Agile and Lean practices and the characteristics of a successful Agile team. Enjoy reading!

What is the Scaled Agile Framework? (SAFe)

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a methodology that has been developed for the support of companies whilst upscaling Lean and Agile methods.

Together with large scale Scrum and Nexus, SAFe is one of the frameworks that addresses the issues that arise when upscaling to more than a single team. SAFe is free of charge and has been made accessible to anyone by Scaled Agile, Inc.

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The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) enhances collaboration, alignment and delivery across a wide range of Agile teams. It is designed to give teams flexibility, and to support them through the pitfalls that await them when switching to Agile in a large organisation.

The method was developed by practitioners, and uses three primary knowledge areas: streamlined product development, systems thinking, and agile software development. SAFe is further divided into three central segments: team, programme, and portfolio.

SAFe is based on the core principles of Agile and Lean, and provides detailed guidelines for working with Enterprise Portfolios, Value Streams, Programmes, and Teams.

It is designed to be used by all stakeholders within an organisation. The first version, 1.0, was launched in 2011. Version 4.6 was launched in 2018.

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) helps larger organizations align their teams and projects towards a common big picture. Implementing agile practices within the organization can lead to increased productivity and adaptability.

The Scrum team, a vital component of SAFe, collaborates closely to deliver value incrementally and meet project goals.

A Scrum Master in SAFe plays a crucial role in guiding the team and ensuring agile principles are followed. SAFe is particularly effective for larger organizations as it provides a structured approach to scaling agile practices across multiple teams and departments.

The core values and principles of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

On Scaled Agile Framework’s (SAFe) website, the authors explain that the method is based on ten underlying concepts, or core values. These have been derived from existing Agile and Lean methods.

  1. View the situation from an economical perspective
  2. Apply system thinking
  3. Assume variability
  4. Build step by step, incrementally, with fast learning cycles
  5. Visualise and limit work in progress
  6. Base milestones on the evaluation of operating systems; reduce batch sizes and manage queue lengths
  7. Apply timing, sync cross-domain activities
  8. Unlock intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers
  9. Decentralise decision making
  10. Organise around value

Scaled Agile Framework: the 4 SAFe configurations (4 SAFe-levels)

In the latest version of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) there are four configurations of the framework. These are: essential, portfolio, large solutions, and full.

Scaled Agile Framework Configuration - Toolshero

Figure 1- the configuration of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

1. Essential (team level)

Essential SAFe is the simplest form of the SAFe framework. It only describes the most critical elements that are important when scaling up to Lean and Agile activities on a small scale. This configuration is meant to provide the most benefits from the framework. SAFe essential includes the team and programme level.

2. Portfolio

Portfolio SAFe includes strategic direction, investment financing, and streamlined governance. This configuration can be used independently, but also in combination with the other configurations.

3. Big solutions

The Large Solution SAFe is intended for coordination and synchronisation between multiple programmes. Portfolio considerations are not included in this.

4. Full

Full SAFe combines the other three configurations. It is the most extensive and comprehensive form of Agile and Lean upscaling.

Scaled Agile Framework certification

Agile in itself has revolutionised the world of software development and project management. The demand for IT professionals with an understanding of the methodology and other variants such as Lean, Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe, has increased significantly.

This methodology is now applied by a large number of organisations. A number of certifications are available to benchmark and test the knowledge of IT professionals in an organisation.

Scaled Agile, Inc. Is the organisation that carries out the certification. This professional certification programme provides a reliable and valid method of assessing SAFe’s skills, knowledge and mindset. Certified SAFe professionals are recognised worldwide for their ability to successfully transform an organisation into an Agile-Lean organisation.

In short, the certification offers:

  • A reliable certificate based on best practices, exams, and data-driven models
  • A certification programme of excellent quality that professionals are looking for
  • Support during the SAFe learning path through training

Scaled Agile Framework: What are the challenges in upscaling Agile and Lean practices?

It is known that smaller organisations can more easily adopt Agile and Lean practices. Larger organisations have the challenge of remaining flexible and being able to respond quickly to influences. As small and flexible organisations that use lean and agile methods grow, some pitfalls or challenges arise.


Small development teams typically focus up to two or three iterations ahead, but in larger organisations further planning is required due to, for example, commitments to the market, or customer feedback.

The product marketing team often works at a high level, with a roadmap of up to a year and a half. The development teams will each time plan three months of work. On a small scale, the development teams are still working two or three iterations ahead, but refined planning is done only for the next iteration.


While smaller development teams have a number of frameworks that determine how agile the team as a whole is, there is no such thing for management.

SAFe does provide many of these best practices and principles. It is also one of the criticisms of this framework: the merging of too many different practices and disciplines.


In Scrum, it is the owner who takes full responsibility. That includes the return on investment of previous decisions, and the performance of the product or service on the market.

In large-scale developments, the umbrella organisation often wants to see all teams, in order to properly organise. That’s why SAFe imposes some restrictions on this, so that when a team works on the same product, their results can be synchronised better.

Innovation & planning

SAFe recommends including an additional iteration in which time is spent on innovation and planning. This is important to improve teams and prepare them for the next step.

In previous editions of SAFe, testing was not included, rather the team backlogs were used, provided by the project manager/product owner himself.


Development teams are made to be autonomous, and are free to decide how they work. SAFe recognises that the more teams join in, the more chaotic it becomes before the product is stabilised or cured before release.

This was because of the complications that arise when working in environments where things are integrated. As a result, not everything could be tested to the end.

Scaled Agile Framework: what are the Agile Release Trains?

Agile usually starts with putting together small teams that focus on contributing parts to a whole.

Sometimes, over time, a need arises for multifunctional teams with a long-term focus on delivering value or value flows.

Agile Release Trains consist of multiple Agile teams that are all focused on achieving a common goal. This is the way to Agile on a company level.

An Agile Release Train consists of people of various expertises. There are experts in software, hardware, testing, implementing, or launching.

Typically, the Agile Release Train consists of about fifty to one hundred and twenty-five people. Each ART functions as a virtual organisation in which they plan, develop, and implement together.

Effective Agile teams are the building blocks of Agile Release Trains. Building a high-quality team creates motivation for other teams. It also provides an opportunity to imitate its success.

Scaled Agile Framework: characteristics of a successful Agile team

A good Agile team will at least meet the following requirements.

Cross functional

Delivering a product or service usually requires the work of different parties within the organisation. Smooth cooperation between these parties and the Agile team is therefore crucial for long-term success.


An Agile team is a dedicated team that stays together after a project, to work on new projects. This provides employees the opportunity to grow within the team itself. This offers them the opportunity to learn from experts outside of their own expertise.


An Agile team is a self-organised and autonomous entity that works completely independently to deliver incremental value.

Benefits of Scaled Agile Framework

Despite some drawbacks associated with the use of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), there are clear benefits to using it. The most positive ones are explained below.

1. Promotes Lean and Agile in traditional, bureaucratic organisations

SAFe is fully focused on implementing Lean and Agile principles.

This causes a drastic cultural shift and shifts in practices for many companies looking to adopt SAFe. It does not require direct restructuring, but SAFe does require the creation of virtual teams that are assigned to Agile teams, who in turn work on Agile Release Trains.

2. Emphasises short-term deliveries

Most organisations have projects with delivery goals that are several months or sometimes several years in the future. SAFe focuses on a standard period of ten weeks for most Agile Release Trains. Planning and feedback play important roles in this.

3. Free of Charge

Scaled Agile Framework is free to use for everyone. Meaning, on a fundamental level. A variety of training courses are still available to help individuals and organisations become familiar with SAFe.

4. Team retention

In many organisations and projects, the team is only set up for the duration of the project, after which the team is broken up. SAFe actually stimulates the retention of teams after a certain project, and for possibly upscaling for a larger project.

5. Suitable for large organisations

SAFe has been developed to help growing organisations convert or scale up Lean and Agile activities. It helps them to carry out the practice and implementation in a controlled manner.

Drawbacks of Scaled Agile Framework

Critics note a number of drawbacks to using the Scaled Agile Framework. Some of these drawbacks in using SAFe are detailed below.

1. Stimulates certification

The SAFe website is, in fact, the only real source of information about SAFe and its uses. The company behind SAFe itself, places a strong emphasis on the usefulness of certification and the purchasing of training courses on their website. Many critics argue that such a focus on commerce hinders the method’s potential growth and implementation, in comparison to more open methods.

2. Prescriptive

SAFe is committed to best practices, other specific practices, and rules. According to critics, there is little room for customisation by the organisation itself. The rules and strictness can be stifling, unless organisations are willing to apply the entire SAFe package and adjust the corporate culture.

3. Manager oriented

Some critics argue that SAFe fails to efficiently implement Agile principles. Instead, it would give an illusion of true Lean and Agile principles by putting an Agile sticker on an already existing hierarchy.

SAFe allows managers to make many of the most important decisions about Agile Teams and ARTs (development teams), which then need to be turned into stories before other developers and team members can really understand the problem. This is by no means efficient, and certainly not based on Agile or Lean principles.

Scaled Agile Framework summary

The Scaled Agile Framework is a tool for companies used whilst upscaling Lean and Agile methods. SAFe is free of charge and accessible to anyone. The method is based on ten underlying concepts, or core values. These have been derived from existing Agile and Lean methods.

SAFe can be implemented on four different scales. SAFe essential is the simplest form of SAFe, yet hold the most benefits within the framework. Portfolio SAFe includes strategy, financing, and governance. The Large Solution SAFe is intended for coordination and synchronisation between multiple programs. Full SAFe combines all the configurations listed above.

The company behind SAFe offers various training courses. Through this training, a company or employee can be certified. The certificate is a professional qualification that professionals are looking for.

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Now it’s Your Turn

What do you think? Do you recognise the explanation of the Scaled Agile Framework? Is this framework used in your own work environment? Or do you know people who use it? Which other methods for upscaling to Lean and Agile do you know? Are you familiar with the basic principles for Lean and Agile?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Leffingwell, D. (2018). SAFe 4.5 Reference Guide: Scaled Agile Framework for Lean Enterprises. Addison-Wesley Professional.
  2. Turetken, O., Stojanov, I., & Trienekens, J. J. (2017). Assessing the adoption level of scaled agile development: a maturity model for Scaled Agile Framework. Journal of Software: Evolution and process, 29(6), e1796.
  3. Putta, A., Paasivaara, M., & Lassenius, C. (2018, November). Benefits and challenges of adopting the scaled agile framework (SAFe): preliminary results from a multivocal literature review. In International Conference on Product-Focused Software Process Improvement (pp. 334-351). Springer, Cham.
  4. Ebert, C., & Paasivaara, M. (2017). Scaling agile. Ieee Software, 34(6), 98-103.
  5. Brenner, R., & Wunder, S. (2015, April). Scaled Agile Framework: Presentation and real world example. In 2015 IEEE Eighth International Conference on Software Testing, Verification and Validation Workshops (ICSTW) (pp. 1-2). IEEE.

How to cite this article:
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Original publication date: 09/05/2020 | Last update: 09/15/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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