Agile Framework: SAFe

Agile Framework: A Deep Dive into the Various Levels of SAFe

Posted by Umang Dayal

23 Feb 24 8 min read

Product development became well-known in 2011 thanks to the work of renowned software development industry veteran Dean Leffingwell, who wrote the book Agile Software Requirements.
This descriptive book showcased the utilization of Agile frameworks such as Lean, Kanban, Scrum, XP, etc. and how to implement them at different levels, teams, or programs. And the best part is that SAFe provides this entire knowledge for free. Currently, the Scaled Agile Framework is recognized as the most popular and efficient framework in the product development world.

An agile framework is the perfect solution if you are looking for product development and management. SAFe, or Scaled Agile Framework, is rapidly gaining adoption among large enterprises. SAFe provides an iterative approach for high-quality product delivery by utilizing Agile principles. If you are looking to adopt SAFe in your organization, this blog is your go-to guide. Here let's discuss the four levels of SAFe, which will help you scale your agile frameworks and decide the most suitable level for your organization.

What is Scaled Agile Framework?

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is widely used for utilizing agile methods across large projects. To put it simply, it's a set of guidelines and tools meant to make it easier for organizations to handle multiple teams that are working on the same project. The main task is to boost teamwork, project efficiency, and satisfy customers.

SAFe combines the strategy of the company with the flexible methods of agile development to make sure things run efficiently as per plans. Before we get into the details of SAFe, there are a few terms and processes you need to know.

1. Essential SAFe, or the basic version, has two parts: the team level and the program level. The basic idea is to do the important work and avoid making things too complicated. It includes necessary elements like ART (Agile Release Train), PI Planning (Program Increment planning), Lean-Agile Principles, etc.

2. Large Solution SAFe, which deals with larger and more complicated projects. It adds another level called the Large Solution level to the existing Team and Program levels. It involves various teams working together on the same project, which includes elements like coordinating with multiple teams and using Kanban for project tracking and managing progress.

3. Portfolio SAFe is used in huge companies where there are a lot of developers working on different projects. It focuses on making important decisions, project budgeting, and funding for value delivery. It's particularly useful when a company has multiple projects or sub-projects going on at once.

4. Full SAFe includes all the above levels: team, program, large solutions, and portfolio. It's the most comprehensive version of Scaled Agile Framework, which is suitable for companies of all sizes.

What are the 4 Levels of Scaled Agile Framework?

1. Portfolio Level

At the portfolio level of SAFe, the main focus is on setting the overall goals and objectives for the entire company. This level clearly states the priority of the project, its duration, and its value. A portfolio management office (PMO) is typically in charge of managing lean practices and SAFe at this level. In smaller companies, the whole organization acts as the PMO, while larger enterprises may have multiple portfolios. For example, a bank may have multiple portfolios for different divisions like account management, personal loans, home loans, and credit cards.

The leading players at the portfolio level include:

  • Chief Technical Officer
  • Chief Information Officer
  • Enterprise Architects
  • Enterprise Coaches
  • Chief Product Managers
  • Portfolio Managers.

Key aspects of the portfolio level are as follows:

  • It's the highest level of SAFe.
  • Vision, goals, and strategies are outlined and defined here.
  • Business cases are outlined for development and delivery.
  • Important business functions, like funding and change management, are properly handled.
  • Product roadmaps are created in detail.
  • Lean principles are used to measure progress.
  • The portfolio level leads to large-scale projects where the vision and architectural epics are passed down from the top level to SAFe development teams.

At the Portfolio level, teams are responsible for tasks such as

  • Mentoring teams, program groups, and developers on lean and agile practices.
  • Ensuring strategies are implemented while supporting teams in fulfilling initiatives.
  • Reviewing delivered value while measuring portfolio productivity.

One of the major benefits of the portfolio level is optimizing time-to-market costs. SAFe offers various advantages, as every step in the process becomes more efficient due to realistic metrics, iterative feedback, and a deep understanding of the projects.


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2. Program level

The program level is considered the most important within the Scaled Agile framework as the focus is on the Agile Release Train (ART), which comprises teams of eight to ten members dedicated to delivering value for a specific project. Each ART team has a clear goal and works continuously to develop products aligned with the client's requirements. These initiatives within an ART are coordinated using SAFe value streams.

Key individuals involved at the program level are as follows:

  • Business analysts
  • Architects
  • Engineers
  • User interface specialists.

Also, at the program level, two distinct teams work together: the DevOps team and the systems team.

Critical aspects of the Program level include

At the program level, the weighted shortest job first, or WSJF, method is followed, where variables like delay cost, time duration, and business value are prioritized. Tasks that have a higher WSJF score are given top priority; hence, developers and product managers can give them more urgent attention. This level reviews and updates the backlog of the programs as critical tasks first, and tasks that require less attention can be categorized for a later stage. This level ensures that timing is properly estimated to develop functions, features, analysis, and strategizing to achieve these tasks, which are broken down into smaller functions for quicker delivery.

Cross-functional teams at the program level define goals, lower risk, and also manage dependencies. Teams working at the program level ensure that all stakeholders are aligned and informed regarding the development of the project. The program-level teams are responsible for evaluating current progress, managing shared ownership, and planning future initiatives.

3. Team-Level

At the team level, the methodology is similar to Scrum or Kanban. Teams employ an iterative process where work is divided, usually for two weeks. Release planning is completed at the program level, and the SAFe team decides what the team will build for sprint planning.

Key Members at the Team Level include:

  • Product Developers
  • Scrum Masters
  • Product Owners
  • Business Analysts
  • User Experience Specialists

Critical aspects of the Team level include:

Delivering value is the main objective of the team level, and stakeholders adhere to the functions, activities, events, and processes typical of the Agile methodology. The engineering practices are carried out through Extreme Programming; the scalability is ensured through Continuous Integration; the project quality is guaranteed by Test-Driven Deployment (TDD); stories are built using backlogs and then developed and tested iteratively. Events at this level also include Sprint Planning sprint Sprint Retrospective, etc.

At the team level, SAFe implementation begins to take place. However, it's highly recommended that companies gain experience with Scrum at the team level before advancing to higher SAFe-level adoption.

4. Large Solution Level

The fourth level was recently developed in Scaled Agile Frameworks to build and handle large, complex projects. This level ensures that organizations maintain consistent coordination and communication between portfolio managers and development teams. It ensures that teams oversee, manage, and coordinate functions as per the instructions provided at the planning level. A constant strategy is followed to ensure that the project stays on track according to the deployment timeline, meets functional testing deadlines, and always stays within the allocated budget. follows overarching strategies to meet project goals and falls under compliance with IT laws and industry standards. This level ensures that managers and developers can identify errors or risks beforehand so it does not compromise the quality of the project.

Key players at the large solution level are as follows:

  • Solution Manager
  • Solution Architect
  • Solution Train Engineer
  • Supplier
  • Shared Services
  • Communities of practice with common interest

Critical aspects of the Large level include:

At the large SAFe level, alignment activities are used to prepare Agile Release Trains within a Solution Train for Program Increment (PI) Planning. Development efforts from all ARTs and suppliers on the Solution Train make it visible to customers and stakeholders for evaluation and feedback, held at every program level. This significant level displays the current state of the integrated solution across all ARTs and facilitates the evaluation of projects. Solution: Train stakeholders to reflect on and identify improvement backlog items through structured problem-solving workshops. Architect Sync guides emerging designs, discusses tradeoffs, and aligns implementation approaches without causing delays in the project. Additionally, RTE Sync includes events and problems that the ARTs cannot directly resolve.

Elevating Agile Practices with SAFe

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a powerful way to scale Agile practices and deliver value more effectively, swiftly, and within the dedicated budget. By utilizing the four levels of the Scaled Agile Framework, both companies and internal teams can improve their ability to produce high-quality products in a timely and efficient manner.

In this journey towards Agile excellence, SoluteLabs is making remarkable strides. By integrating SAFe into our operational ethos, we're not just adhering to Agile methodologies; we're redefining them. Our commitment to Agile practices goes beyond mere implementation. At SoluteLabs, we're crafting a culture that breathes agility, fosters innovation, and prioritizes delivering exceptional value to our clients.


Stay curious, Questions?

What is SAFe, and why is it important for Agile transformation?

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SAFe, or the Scaled Agile Framework, is a set of organization and workflow patterns intended to guide enterprises in scaling lean and agile practices. Beyond individual team practices, SAFe promotes alignment, collaboration, and delivery across large numbers of agile teams. It's crucial for Agile transformation because it provides a structured approach for scaling agile methodologies to larger organizations, ensuring that the agility, flexibility, and rapid adaptation that agile methods offer can be applied at every level of the organization.

How many levels are there in SAFe, and what are they?

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SAFe is structured around four primary levels designed to accommodate various organizational scopes and complexities:

  • Team Level: Focuses on the basic principles of Agile development, including Scrum, Kanban, and XP practices.
  • Program Level: Introduces the concept of Agile Release Trains (ARTs) to align teams to a common business and technology mission.
  • Large Solution Level: Addresses the coordination of multiple Agile Release Trains (ARTs) in the development of large, complex solutions.
  • Portfolio Level: Focuses on aligning enterprise strategy to execution through Lean Portfolio Management, governance, and budgeting practices.

What are the key benefits of implementing SAFe?

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Implementing SAFe offers several key benefits, including:

  • Improved alignment and execution across teams: This ensures that all levels of the organization are working towards common goals.
  • Increased quality and productivity: By fostering an environment of continuous improvement, collaboration, and transparency.
  • Faster time-to-market: Through the use of Agile Release Trains (ARTs), which streamline the delivery process.
  • Enhanced ability to manage changing priorities: Provides a flexible framework that can adapt to evolving business needs.