Find people who share your values, and you’ll conquer the world together.
The four Core Values of alignment, built-in quality, transparency, and program execution represent the fundamental beliefs that are key to SAFe’s effectiveness. These guiding principles help dictate behavior and action for everyone who participates in a SAFe portfolio.
These values guide which behaviors are valued and which are not, where to focus, and how to know when the enterprise is on the path to fulfilling business goals.
SAFe is broad and deep and is based on both Lean and Agile principles. That’s what it’s built on, but what does SAFe itself stand for? SAFe upholds four Core Values: Alignment, Built-in Quality, Transparency, and Program Execution. These are illustrated in Figure 1, and each is discussed in the paragraphs that follow.
Like cars out of alignment, misaligned companies can develop serious problems. They are hard to steer and they don’t respond well to changes in direction . Even if it’s clear where everyone thinks they’re headed, the vehicle is unlikely to get them there.
Alignment scales. It is a necessary condition to be able to address the business reality of fast-paced change, disruptive competitive forces, and geographically distributed teams. While empowered Agile Teams are good (even great), the responsibility for strategy and alignment cannot rest with the accumulated opinions of the teams, no matter how good they are. Rather, alignment must be based on the Enterprise business objectives. Here are some of the ways in which SAFe supports alignment:
- It starts at the strategy level of the Portfolio, is reflected in Strategic Themes and the Portfolio Backlog, and then moves down through the Vision, Roadmap, and Program Backlogs to the Team Backlogs. Continuous Exploration incorporates the inputs and perspectives from a diverse group of stakeholders to and information sources to ensure that the items in the backlogs contain economically prioritized and refined work ready for teams to implement. All is visible. All is debated. All is resolved. All is known.
- It is supported by clear lines of content authority, starting at the portfolio and then resting primarily with the Product and Solution Management roles, and extending to the Product Owner role.
- PI Objectives and Iteration Goals are used to communicate expectations and commitments.
- Cadence and synchronization are applied to ensure that things stay in alignment, or that they drift only within reasonable economic and time boundaries.
- Program architecture, User Experience guidance, and governance help ensure that the Solution is technologically sound, robust, and scalable.
- Lean prioritization keeps the stakeholders engaged in continuous, agreed-to, rolling-wave prioritization, based on the then-current context and changing fact patterns.
Alignment, however, does not imply or encourage command and control. Instead, it provides a foundation for the enterprise where business objectives and outcomes are the continued focus. It also encourages decentralized technical and economic decision-making, thereby enabling those who implement value to make better local decisions.
Built-in Quality ensures that every increment of the solution reflects quality standards. Quality is not “added later.” Built-in quality is a prerequisite of Lean and flow; without it, the organization will likely operate with large batches of unverified, unvalidated work. Excessive rework and slower velocities are the likely outcome. There can be no ambiguity about the importance of built-in quality in large-scale systems. It is mandatory.
In complex solutions, software functionality often represents a fast-changing and increasingly high-investment area. In addition, given the high levels of complexity and the manual nature of much of the work, it is often the source of many solution defects. The relatively lower cost of change encourages rapid adaptation, which is good. But if attention is not paid, the software design may quickly erode, negatively affecting quality and velocity.
Put simply, you can’t scale crappy code. The Agile Manifesto certainly focused on quality: “Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility” . To address software quality in the face of rapid change, software practitioners have developed and evolved a number of effective practices, many of which are largely inspired by eXtreme Programming. These include:
- Test-First: Test-Driven Development (TDD), Acceptance Test-Driven development (ATDD), and Behavior-Driven Development (BDD)
- Continuous integration and Continuous Deployment
- Pair Work
- Collective ownership
But coding aside, no one can scale crappy components or systems, either. Hardware elements—electronics, electrical, fluidics, optics, mechanical, packaging, thermal, and many more—are a lot less “soft.” Errors here can introduce a much higher cost of change and rework. Tips to avoid this include:
- Frequent design cycles and integration 
- Collaborative design practices
- Model-Based Systems Engineering
- Set-based Design
- Investment in development and test infrastructure
Eventually, different components and subsystems—software, firmware, hardware, and everything else—must collaborate to provide effective solution-level behaviors. Practices that support solution-level quality include:
- Frequent system and solution-level integration
- Solution-level testing of functional and Nonfunctional Requirements
- System and Solution Demos
Enterprises use SAFe to build some of the world’s largest and most important systems, many of which have unacceptable social or economic costs of failure. To protect the public safety, these systems are often subject to extensive regulatory or customer oversight and rigorous compliance requirements. To that end, SAFe enterprises that build high assurance systems define their approved practices, policies, and procedures in a Lean Quality Management System (QMS). These systems are intended to ensure that development activities and outcomes comply with all relevant regulations and quality standards, as well as providing the required documentation to prove it.
In contrast, non-high assurance Agile development teams don’t typically create these artifacts in a formal way. Instead they use the team backlog, persistent test cases and the code itself to document system behavior. However, in this context, it is clear that we will need to develop and maintain a Software Requirements Specification (SRS), as we simply cannot do V&V without it. However, the fact that we need such a document doesn’t mandate that we do it all, upfront, in a large batch. Instead, the required documentation and artifacts can be incrementally created by agile teams, as part of the regular flow of work, using agile tooling and automation, whenever possible. The benefit to agile teams is that the documentation is continuously updated with the agile team artifacts, so documentation is not done after the fact. For example, Agile tools can be used to generate an SRS or traceability matrix.
Solution development is hard. Things go wrong or do not work out as planned. Without transparency, facts are obscure and hard to come by. This results in decisions based on speculative assumptions and lack of data. No one can fix a secret.
For that trust is needed, because without trust no one can build high-performance teams and programs, nor build (or rebuild) the confidence needed to make and meet reasonable commitments. Trust exists when one party can confidently rely on another to act with integrity, particularly in times of difficulty. And without trust, working environments are a lot less fun and motivating.
Building trust takes time. Transparency is the enabler for trust. SAFe helps an enterprise achieve transparency:
- Executives, Portfolio Managers, and other stakeholders are able to see into the Portfolio Kanban and program backlogs, and they have a clear understanding of the PI Objectives for each ART or Solution Train.
- ARTs have visibility into the team’s backlogs, as well other program backlogs.
- Teams and programs commit to short-term, clear, and visible commitments. They routinely meet them.
- Inspect and Adapt with all relevant stakeholders; lessons learned are translated into backlog improvement items
- Teams and Agile Release Trains (ARTs) have visibility into portfolio business and enabler epics. They can see what might be headed their way.
- Status reporting is based on objective measures of working solutions.
- Everyone can understand the velocity and WIP of the teams and programs; strategy and the ability to execute are aligned
Of course, none of the rest of SAFe matters if teams can’t execute and continuously deliver value. Therefore, SAFe places an intense focus on working systems and resultant business outcomes. This isn’t only for the obvious reasons. History shows us that while many enterprises start the transformation with Agile Teams, they often become frustrated as even those teams struggle to deliver larger amounts of solution value reliably and efficiently.
That is the purpose of the ART, and that is why SAFe focuses implementation initially at the Program Level. In turn, the ability of Value Streams to deliver value depends on the ability of the ARTs and Solution Trains.
But with alignment, transparency, and built-in quality on the team’s side, they have a little “wind at their back.” That enables a focus on execution. And if they struggle—and they will, because complex solution development is hard—they have the cornerstone of the Inspect and Adapt workshops. In that way, they close the loop and execute better and better during each Program Increment.
But program execution can’t just be a team-based, bottom-up thing. Successful Lean-Agile execution at scale requires not just the teams but the active support of their Lean-Agile Leaders, who couple their internal leadership with an orientation toward system and Customer outcomes. That creates a persistent and meaningful context for the teams and their stakeholders.
That’s the way the successful teams and programs are doing it, and that’s why they are getting the many benefits—employee engagement, productivity, quality, and time to market—that Lean-Agile enterprises so enjoy.
Learn More Labovitz, George H. and Victor Rosansky. The Power of Alignment: How Great Companies Stay Centered and Accomplish Extraordinary Things. Wiley, 1997.
 AgileManifesto.org.  Oosterwal, Dantar P. The Lean Machine: How Harley-Davidson Drove Top-Line Growth and Profitability with Revolutionary Lean Product Development. Amacom, 2010.
Last update: 16 June, 2017