Applying Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to IT Service Management and IT Operations

As an IT Service Management (ITSM) leader with a strong preference to leveraging Agile, Scrum and Lean (including LeanIT) to effectively and efficiently deliver IT operations, I became quite interested in the concept of the Scaled Agile Framework by Dean Leffingwell and his associates. The Scaled Agile Framework® (pronounced SAFe™) is “an interactive knowledge base for implementing agile practices at enterprise scale”.

In the SAFe website, Leffingwell states that “this model of agile adoption has been elaborated primarily in my books Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements for Teams Programs and the Enterprise (2011) and Scaling Software Agility: Best Practices for Large Enterprises, (2007) and my It has been successfully applied in programs of only 50-100 people, and in enterprises employing thousands of software developers.”

SAFe has four (4) core values:
1. Code Quality (because you can’t scale crappy code);
2. Program Execution (self organising teams of agile teams reliably & regularly delivering value);
3. Alignment (from portfolio to program to team); and
4. Transparency (transparency in work builds confidence, alignment and trust).

Of the four core values, I became quite interested in Alignment especially between the Portfolio, Programs and Teams. Previously I've been involved in projects structured as a hierarchy of agile scrums but I had not seen a model that provided guidance to this extent upwards to the Portfolio level. 

In brief, SAFe describes three (3) key layers:
1. Portfolio which promotes a centralized strategy and decentralized execution. Business and architectural epic kanban systems provide visibility and work-in-progress limits for product development flow. Objective metrics support governance and kaizen and the value description is provided via Business and Architectural Epics.
2. Program where self managing team-of-agile-teams are committed to continuous value delivery. They are continuously aligned to a common mission around enterprise value streams and have common sprint lengths and normalized velocity. The value description is provided via Features and Benefits.
3. Agile teams where teams are strong and proficient in scrum as we intend to scale these practices across the department. Teams operate under program vision, system, architecture and user experience guidance and the value description is provided via user stories.

As Leffingwell and his associates emphasize that this is not a new concept but an extension of known practices. As an example, in 2010 Cohen (p.352) stated “fortunately, if large organisations use the techniques described regarding the role of the product manager, working with a shared backlog, being mindful of dependencies, coordinating work among teams, and cultivating communities of practice, they can successfully scale a scrum project”.

The fundamentals of SAFe apply effectively for program management of ITSM and IT Operations. I’m aware of an IT department, who are responsible for the effective and efficient delivery of IT Service Management and operational services supported by hundreds of staff across various countries. They primarily do not provide application development or support services. In order to provide world class IT operational services and the highest value possible to their customers, they have adopted a governance model similar to SAFe in the Program and Team levels. Pictured below is their Program Wall that contains the highest priority initiatives for their department (as rows). These initiatives are then managed as projects amongst various cross functional, scrum teams within the department. The pictured cards are features, and these features also appear in the respective scrum team wall(s) in the form of elaborated user stories. They run fortnightly iterations (sprints) and twice a week, all initiative/project owners meet with the department leadership team for stand-ups to discuss progress and blockers (just like a scrum team stand-up).

Agile program wall
Program Wall

The greatest benefits of this Program Wall (and their agile way of working) include:
  • Better visibility & transparency of the department’s priorities for all staff;
  • Clear alignment of the department’s work to the various teams;
  • Better utilization of staff as they form cross-functional teams to tackle their highest priorities;
  • Staff morale improves as they can see how their efforts directly contribute to their customer’s highest needs.

While the department did not originally make a specific decision to adopt SAFe for its approach to program management, there are clear synergies between SAFe and their way of working. This case study demonstrates that the benefits of frameworks like SAFe and Agile can be applied to teams other than application development or support teams. Therefore, these frameworks can be effectively applied across entire IT organisations (both development and operations).

Cohn, M. (2010). Succeeding with Agile, Boston: Addison Wesley
Leffingwell, D. (2013). Scaled Agile Framework. Retrieved October 12, 2013 from

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