A SAFe implementation can be daunting. I recently had a stakeholder ask me if I had any advice for those working through the first portion of the SAFe Implementation Roadmap and how to determine if the initial steps are going well.

As you begin to create your implementation plan, I recommend that you have the following four elements in place:

  1. Set the Strategic Theme, OKRs, and Epic Hypotheses
  2. Find a Coach and Establish Coaching Outcomes
  3. Get the LACE Working as an Agile Team
  4. Identify Your First Pilot ART and Set a Launch Date

1. Set the Strategic Theme, OKRs, and Epic Hypotheses

One of the first steps I take when I engage a new customer is to understand their desired business outcomes. When leveraging SAFe, it is useful to consider creating a Strategic Theme focused on achieving greater Business Agility. Strategic Themes help connect execution to strategy and, through the use of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), you will have an effective way to both communicate and measure the progress towards your goal.

In SAFe, defining an Epic is critical to driving a Strategic Theme forward. To get started, I encourage you to use the Epic Hypothesis Statement template. Thinking in terms of hypotheses encourages Business Agility by challenging traditional investment decision-making and lays the groundwork for Innovation Accounting early on. This approach ensures that strategic investment in the transformation or implementation ties to objectives with agreed-upon measures.

TIP: Use the Epic Hypothesis Statement template as a way to help stakeholders understand the LACE’s expected business outcomes and the measures that will serve as signposts along the way.


2. Find a Coach and Establish Coaching Outcomes

I highly recommend that anyone seeking to implement SAFe, or any other new way of working, bring in a highly experienced partner that can serve as a guide, advisor, mentor, and coach. However, I don’t recommend that you hand over the keys and let the consultant “drive the transformation.” The customer’s ability to be directly involved in leading their transformation is a critical element of sustainable success. I also suggest the customer identify one or more internal change agents who I can mentor to cultivate the customer’s internal coaching capabilities.

When I think about the last full-scale transformation engagement I coached, I can still recall the three agreed-upon outcomes. While the priorities of my work shifted over time as we gained new insights, the touchstone outcomes were consistent:

  • Accelerate the sustainable transformation to Lean-Agile at scale.
  • Cultivate and enhance the capabilities of the internal coaches.
  • Help the Agile Center of Excellence become a pull-based organization.

TIP: Facilitate a discussion with the customer regarding whether the coach or the customer “owns” the transformation and consider establishing an outcome that will allow the internal personnel to sustain and improve the new way of working on their own.


3. Get The LACE Working as an Agile Team

One of the first steps in setting up the Lean-Agile Center of Excellence (LACE) is to conduct a kick-off workshop where the leaders and change agents collaboratively create a canvas (see below) that describes the mission, scope, roles, activities, and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for the team. I have found it a fantastic method of fostering engagement and ensuring alignment through conversations while creating an artifact that can quickly and effectively communicate the LACE’s purpose.

During the canvas discussions, they identify the change agents, leaders, and others who will be available to work the LACE’s backlog of stories and experiments. Once the people have been identified, I urge the LACE to begin working as an Agile team. The experience of working as a Scrum or Kanban team helps those involved gain a deeper understanding of what it is to be Agile. The artifacts created by an agile team also provide an excellent opportunity for the LACE to host a Gemba Walk for others wanting to learn about the transformation. (Gemba is a Japanese word meaning “where the work is done / where the value is created” and a Gemba Walk is the practice of providing others an opportunity to see and learn as the work is being done.)

I prefer to hold a story mapping workshop with the LACE to encourage creating features and stories that will allow them to accomplish their mission, meet the agreed-upon success criteria, and build the initial communication strategy.

TIP: Help the LACE become an Agile team that can serve as an example for others.

4. Identify Your First Pilot ART and Set a Launch Date

Before creating the plan to implement SAFe, an organization will need to identify the way value flows through the organization. This map includes all of the steps it takes to deliver that value as well as the systems and people required to support that flow. The ideal technique used to identify the Value Streams is to conduct a Value Stream and ART Identification workshop. During these workshops, I have had customers that want to map out their entire Fortune 10 corporation and identify every potential ART (Agile Release Train) with the intention to launch dozens of ARTs at once. I have not seen that type of big upfront planning pay off, although I imagine it could be possible with an army of coaches.

In my experience, an incremental approach to implementing SAFe leads to deeper adoption of the values and principles that will allow for sustainable change. Frequently, the leadership style, culture, and appetite for change can vary widely, so differences in context, consistency, and continuity are points to consider as you create the plan. Additionally, launching a pilot ART creates opportunities for the customer to share their stories with others preparing to embark upon the same journey, creating an additional pull towards the new way of working.

Tip: Observe a PI (Program Increment) Planning Event before you launch your first ART as a way to gain a better understanding of the feel and flow. The customer’s first ART can often provide an excellent opportunity for a Gemba Walk!

A key outcome of the workshop is to identify a potential ART that can launch as soon as possible. Some insights just can’t be gained without first attempting the new way of working, and launching the first ART provides lessons in a way that assumes variability while preserving options. Understanding key factors such as the amount of leadership support, the maturity of existing agile teams, a clear product, service, or solution, and the ART’s ability to move the needle towards one of the desired business outcomes will allow you to determine where to start.


One More Tip: Accelerate Your Launch with Coaching

I said it above, and I’ll say it again: having the right coaches on the team is critical to getting started with your SAFe implementation. This applies to finding the right external coach — and cultivating internal coaches too.

An external coach fills two common needs: 

  1. Even very experienced internal leaders themselves are often at different points on their Lean-Agile journey, and the meaning of “leadership support” can vary widely, as can the maturity of the teams. 
  2. An external coach supports the new way of working while ensuring that the implementation is grounded in values and principles instead of only focusing on the processes. 

Part of every external coach’s job includes cultivating internal coaching so that a SAFe implementation can be sustained for the long haul. In my experience, this can be achieved early on by altering one of the principle rules about ART launch cadence. When you first get started, it can be beneficial to stagger launches so that internal coaches can see multiple ARTs and PI Planning events quickly. Within three or four iterations, you can adjust length and synchronize events to get back into cadence.

Tip: Make sure the SPC (SAFe Program Consultant) who helps you launch has done it before — and that they have agile coaching skills. While the SPC certification indicates their theoretical knowledge to guide your implementation, it does not guarantee that they possess the skills to serve as an Agile coach. Alternatively, find an SPCT (SAFE Program Consultant Trainer) to join you as these individuals have deep, verified experience.

Questions on Your SAFe Implementation?

No matter where you are on your journey, if you are looking for advice on your SAFe implementation, we’d love to help. Please contact me directly.