Part IV: Using FLEX to both enhance and simplify SAFe

SAFe was developed as a way to coordinate teams working together on projects. It is popular because it has many good points at the team level. These include:

  • the use of product management to create a business focus and product ownership to carry this down to the teams
  • having a well defined intake process
  • a method for multiple team planning
  • a way to coordinate multiple teams with semi-continuous integration
  • integrating Lean principles into its practices
  • more

However, as it has evolved, it has become more complex. It has several levels now and they are all problematic for various reasons. Essential SAFe, the simplest of the levels, works well for development groups (programs in SAFe) that have well-defined requirements coming to them. But many business groups embedded in larger companies and standalone development groups find themselves in a dilemma when trying to use SAFe. If they use only Essential SAFe they do not get any guidance on Lean Portfolio or Product Management.  If they use one of the higher levels they are adopting a framework that is significantly more complicated than it needs to be.

I’d assert that the Lean Portfolio and Product Management of Solutions, MVPs, MMFs, Epics, Strategic themes and more is more complicated than it needs to be even for large organizations.

The only place I believe SAFe is recommended is or very large companies that need a well-documented approach they can use for internal training. Although it is significantly more cumbersome than it needs to be, it may be more viable for a large organization that cannot design their own approach. This part discusses how SAFe can be simplified by modifying it’s portfolio and product management methods can be replaced with Lean Portfolio and Lean Product management methods based on flow.

How FLEX Enhances and Simplifies SAFe at the Same Time

I have long considered elegance as “enhancing something while making it simpler.” While SAFe has many proponents and antagonists I don’t think anyone would consider SAFe elegant. When SAFe came out in 2012 it was mostly about the program level with a little on the portfolio. As SAFe has added new insights, practices, roles, events and more, it has increased in complexity. Much of this is due to its binding many concepts to particular organizational levels. But most of these concepts are required regardless of company size. For example, even small companies need portfolio management. Mid-size companies are therefore left to leave required pieces out or include more levels (and complexity) than required.

SAFe, of course, can be an improvement over just a team-centric approach.  One of the reasons SAFe can work is that it limits the amount of work hitting teams. The program increment planning event acts as a gating factor enabling programs to pull when they have capacity and to avoid having too much work in process (WIP).  This provides us with a clue to a better way of defining SAFe – one that this book will focus on. This is to attend to the entire value stream (using Lean’s meaning here and not the way SAFe has subtly re-defined it).  In other words, we need to attend to how we identify, decompose and sequence the work before it hits the teams. Regardless of your scale, this is important.

FLEX is designed around shortening the time from concept to realization for work being done by an organization. It focuses on flow of the work. It has a much simpler model for doing this that is more effective because of its simplicity.  It is better to have an approach from end-to-end that you fill in as needed than to just take subsets of concepts and jam them together.

FLEX provides a much simpler, yet more effective, portfolio and product management approach than SAFe uses. It also avoids SAFe’s overloading of common terms. FLEX also provides alternatives to the method SAFe uses to coordinate teams. While SAFe’s approach is often effective, it is not the only method to use.

Before reading this part, it is important that you read the prior chapters in this book as concepts in them will be referred to frequently:

  1. The Business Case For Agility. This chapter introduces the Minimum Business Increment (MBI) an essential concept different from an MVP and not explicitly in SAFe.
  2. What is flow? FLEX is based on achieving flow, it is important to understand what it is.

The chapters in this part are:

  1. What SAFe Provides Us. It is important to understand the essence of SAFe so that we can keep the good in it while extending it.
  2. Overview of Essential SAFe discusses SAFe from a value stream perspective. It is much easier to improve SAFe if you understand why it works when it does.
  3. Why Essential SAFe is Both More and Less Than What’s Needed at Small to Mid-Scale discusses how SAFe’s tying its practices to the size of an organization works against its effective adoption at all levels of scale, but particularly small and mid-scale.
  4. Putting it together: FLEX and SAFe. In this chapter I talk about the options you have in using FLEX to both enhance and simplify SAFe.