Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence—only in constant improvement and constant change.
This is article 12, the final article in the SAFe®Implementation Roadmap series. Click here to view the entire roadmap.
The previous articles in the SAFe Implementation Roadmap series described the first 11 steps:
- Reaching the Tipping Point
- Train Lean-Agile Change Agents
- Train Executives, Managers, and Leaders
- Create a Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE)
- Identify Value Streams and Agile Release Trains (ARTs)
- Create the Implementation Plan
- Prepare for ART Launch
- Train Teams and Launch the ART
- Coach ART Execution
- Launch More ARTs and Value Streams
- Extend to the Portfolio
Organizations that have followed the steps above are to be congratulated! No doubt substantial progress has been made on this portion of the Lean-Agile transformation journey. A sufficiently powerful coalition of change agents is in place. The majority of stakeholders are trained. The portfolio has been transformed into Development Value Streams (that align to one or more Operational Value Streams) supported by Agile Release Trains continuously delivering value. The new way of working is becoming the norm all the way from individual teams to those responsible for managing portfolio concerns. Most importantly, substantial business benefits are accumulating every day as evidenced by outcome-centric portfolio KPIs. Improvements in quality, productivity, time-to-market, and employee engagement are meeting or exceeding expectations, and the first results of Business Agility are becoming apparent. The temptation for many enterprises who have made it to this point is to fall into the trap of thinking that the work of transformation and SAFe adoption is done, since most of the steps in the implementation roadmap have been followed.
However, this is not the end of the journey. It’s just the start of a new beginning! Now the aim is to accelerate the enterprise towards business agility!
To reinforce and accelerate the SAFe transformation, leaders must now expand their view of the implementation. They will need to maintain the energy and enthusiasm they are devoting to the short cycles of Iterations and Program Increments (PIs) while setting their sights on the larger goals of true business agility. Across all seven competencies of the Lean Enterprise, improvements must progress to an advanced state until the culture of the organization transforms.
This final article in the SAFe Implementation Roadmap series suggests some key activities that build on the previous steps in the roadmap and can accelerate the organization to business agility.
Getting to this last step of the Implementation Roadmap is the beginning of another journey, one based on the foundation of relentless improvement. By now, the emerging Lean Enterprise will have started to build a new operating model and culture, one in which the principles and practices of Lean and Agile are beginning to be the norm. While most competencies have started to take root in the previous steps in the roadmap, others, like Organizational Agility and a Continuous Learning Culture are likely to be at the early stages in this step.
Building on the benefits gained allows the enterprise to accelerate its journey towards business agility. It requires dedication to basic and advanced practices, self-reflection, and retrospection. Here are some activities the enterprise can use to ensure relentless improvement:
- Measure the performance of the portfolio
- Reinforce the basics
- Progress toward mastery
- Anchor new behaviors in the culture
- Apply learnings across the enterprise
Each of these is described in the sections below.
Measure the Performance of the Portfolio
One of the most important steps to accelerate progress toward business agility is to assess how far the portfolio has come, leverage its strengths, and to focus improvement efforts on any areas of weakness. If the organization followed the guidance in Measure and Grow to conduct baseline business agility assessments at the start of the SAFe implementation, then a re-assessment using the same 21 dimensions of business agility can quickly shine the spotlight on the most critical areas of focus for relentless improvement activities.
As an example, the assessment in Figure 1 shows that the portfolio has reached a high degree of mastery in some dimensions like Agile Teams, while others, such as the three dimensions of Lean Portfolio Management, remain not started.
Achieving business agility requires similar proficiency across all seven competencies and 21 dimensions. These results provide a clear visible indicator that the organization should revisit the ‘extend to portfolio’ step of the implementation roadmap, understand the gaps, and build a tangible action plan to increase proficiency in that area. One obvious action that could be taken in the Figure 1 scenario (if it hasn’t been done already) would be for the portfolio participants to attend the SAFe Lean Portfolio Management course and the facilitated working session that follows to build a plan for launching (or re-launching) Lean Portfolio Management.
The questions in the Business Agility assessment download (see Measure and Grow) also imply the recommended actions to take for advancing in each of the 21 dimensions of business agility. Organizations with low scores in any dimension should look closely at the corresponding questions for that dimension and work to implement what the questions suggest. For example, if the question “Leaders use the Implementation Roadmap to guide the adoption of SAFe” is answered with ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ then the recommended action would be to review and retrain the leadership team on the steps in Implementation Roadmap, and adjust the rollout plan to follow the recommended steps more closely. Note that the success pattern is to fill any low scoring gaps (as illustrated by the LPM dimensions in Figure 1 for example) and ensure the portfolio is making similar progress across all competencies over just focusing on mastery in one dimension.
Reinforce the Basics
In virtually every team sport, when teams start to falter during a season, coaches will refocus their players on the basic fundamentals of their positions as the first step to getting back on the path to winning. The same is often true for organizations adopting SAFe. At the beginning of the transformation journey, great focus was placed on the basics of Lean-Agile and SAFe principles, Team and Technical Agility, and Agile Product Delivery. Everyone was trained, and much of the initial emphasis was on learning the basics of SAFe. As more trains are launched and the organization’s attention moves to new challenges, steps in the implementation roadmap may be skipped along the way. Practices that were closely followed in the beginning may have been altered or discontinued. Whether it’s due to lack of understanding, a desire to shortcut the path to agility, or the natural ebb and flow of a large company, the end result is that one (or several) of the ten critical ART success factors of SAFe described in the Essential SAFe article are not being followed. Experience from thousands of SAFe implementations has shown that skipping any of these ten factors will inevitably lead to the inability of the portfolio to achieve optimal results from implementing SAFe to achieve business agility.
SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs) can use the Essential SAFe Toolkit to guide a self-assessment by the organization of these ten critical success factors. The toolkit uses common anti-patterns that emerge when one or more critical practices are not being followed, and helps focus relentless improvement efforts on the basic elements that need to be revisited and potentially retrained.
Progress Towards Mastery
Once the recommendations of the SAFe business agility assessment have been followed and the critical success factors are consistently practiced by every ART, the portfolio should see significant improvement in all competencies and dimensions. By this time, value is being delivered frequently, customers and business owners are happy, and everyone in the portfolio is energized. At this stage the question may become “now what?” While the positive improvements to the culture and the better business results should be celebrated, there’s more work to do. It’s time to take the next steps toward mastery, to maximize the performance in every dimension, and permanently engrain the new way of working into the culture of the organization.
The following is a list of ‘pro tips’ and advanced concepts in each of the seven competencies that will help enterprises realize the greatest benefits of SAFe and optimize the environment for business agility.
Team and Technical Agility
- Double down on the principles that drive Agile Teams and Agile Release Trains.
- Train all teams in built-in practices, with software-centric teams getting trained in Agile Software Engineering
- Ensure all teams apply and improve built-in quality practices
Agile Product Delivery
- Focus on Customer Centricity and Design Thinking to help drive better solutions.
- Train Product Management in Agile Product and Solutions Management to better understand the practices and apply the tools
- Map the delivery pipeline to identify the delays to flow, guide investments in automation, and achieve the goal of release on demand.
Enterprise Solution Delivery
- Ensure specification and roadmaps build and validate the solution and its Continuous Delivery Pipeline together
- Include continuous delivery concerns and the cost of delayed value in system architecture decisions
- Measure and improve ‘continuish’ integration practices across the entire supply chain
Lean Portfolio Management
- Apply participatory budgeting
- Eliminate projects and timesheets
- Master Lean Startup practices
- Make an explicit Enterprise Architecture roadmap
- Evolve the focus from developing individual Lean-Agile leaders to building high-performing leadership teams
- Form Communities of Practice specifically for leaders interested in connecting with peers who are also developing as Lean-Agile leaders
- Launch a leader development initiative using one or modules of the Leading in the Digital Age series from Scaled Agile
- Reinforce the principles with book club readings
- Share best practices and learnings from optimizing value streams
- Incorporate Gemba in everyone’s work activities
- Share strategy agility success stories
Continuous Learning Culture
- Develop and visualize both quantitative and qualitative metrics to assess the tangible results of relentless improvement
- Expand Gemba visits to customers, partner organizations, and enterprises in unrelated markets to gain new insights that can spark fresh innovation initiatives
- Invest in advanced digital systems for knowledge sharing, collaboration, and rapid access to accurate information
Anchor New Behaviors in the Culture
The work to implement SAFe and achieve mastery of the seven competencies will inevitably shift the culture of the organization. Anchoring this shift so that it becomes permanent is critical to ensuring the organization keeps progressing and doesn’t slip back into old patterns of behavior. As portfolios advance toward higher degrees of mastery there will be a natural tendency to assume that the new way of working is understood and to shift the focus of the organization to ‘the next big thing.’ The reality is that until all of the new principles and practices have permeated the entire portfolio and have simply become the default way work gets done, there will be an ongoing risk that all of the organization’s hard-fought gains will be lost, and the portfolio will revert back to legacy mindsets and practices. This can be caused by changes in leadership, new threats in the market that create a crisis response environment, or by the organization simply not having enough time exercising all of the new habits to the point that they transform the culture.
How can this pitfall be avoided?
Once again the wisdom of W. Edwards Deming points the way. “Transformation is not automatic. It must be learned; it must be led.” Leaders must do more than ‘change the system.’ Leaders must also understand the principles and practices of change leadership and organizational change management. This means leaders must be curators, caretakers, and defenders of the new way of working. When the heat is on and the pressure to revert back to old habits escalates, everyone will look to leaders from the top of the organization down to see how they respond. Have the leaders transformed how they think? How they act? How they make decisions? How they get things done in moments of crisis? When leaders demonstrate that true change has occurred, and going backward is not an option no matter the circumstances, the changes become galvanized into the organization’s DNA, and the new way of working is likely to withstand similar challenges in the future.
Apply Learnings Across the Enterprise
It is common for the world’s largest organizations to have many portfolios. Success in one portfolio does not ensure success in other portfolios. As the initial portfolio adopting SAFe makes headway on its progress towards business agility, the final stage of Accelerate is to leverage the learnings and successes of the pioneering organization to transform the remaining portfolios. The recommended pattern is to provide change agents from the initial portfolio with the opportunity to transplant into subsequent portfolios, bringing with them all of the experience and insights of implementing SAFe. To keep this pattern from crippling the first portfolio, organizations should aggressively invest in cultivating the next generation of leaders in every role so they are prepared to step in when their counterparts move on to launch the transformation in other portfolios. Planned well, these transitions can be smooth and can also create great opportunity and upward mobility for these leaders.
Learn More Perez, Carlota. Project to Product: Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. Edward Elgar Pub, 2003.  Kersten, Mik. Project to Product. IT Revolution Press, 2018.
Last updated: 27 September 2021