How the Flow Framework™ Maximizes Your Wins from SAFe®

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Many organizations have invested heavily or are considering investing in the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) to improve their enterprise software delivery, where complex product work spans dozens of Agile development teams.

Enterprises that have made strong strides down the SAFe path have trained and certified their teams, hired internal coaches, adopted new tools and implemented new processes. They’ve worked tirelessly over several years to expand initial experiments to a larger enterprise footprint – a process that for most is still in progress.  

So when Mik Kersten, Tasktop’s CEO, introduced The Flow Framework™ in his book, Project to Product, to bridge the gap between technologists and business stakeholders, some SAFe champions were wondering whether their hands were too full to take on yet another framework, even though the ideas of the Flow Framework seem to dovetail with those of SAFe.

But here’s the thing:

There is no silver bullet to solve all the challenges of software delivery. To quote Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org, there is no “grand unifying theory” to building better products at the speed of the market.

A company’s approach to transforming, modernizing and continuously improving software delivery will always involve several methodologies (like Agile), movements (like DevOps), practices (like Lean) and scaling frameworks such as SAFe, LeSS and Nexus.

And although both SAFe and the Flow Framework are indeed frameworks, they are by no means the same thing, nor are they mutually exclusive.

SAFe is a framework for scaling Agile and connecting it to the business. The Flow Framework, meanwhile, provides a business- and customer-centric view of what flows across the entire software delivery process. That includes the Agile parts provided by SAFe, the parts covered by other frameworks or practices (like ITIL), and the parts of the value stream (usually further upstream) where disciplined practices may not be in place at all.

By design, the Flow Framework is complementary to SAFe. And while the former doesn’t depend on the latter, most enterprises will see greater success with the Flow Framework if a scaling framework is in place. Whatever your approach, where the Flow Framework shines is in giving you a simple, high-level view of the effect of your Agile and DevOps transformations on business results.

A Brief Introduction to the Flow Framework

The Flow Framework does not instruct you how to handle the complex coordination and orchestration of software development across multiple Agile teams. That is entirely the domain of SAFe and other methodologies like LeSS, DA and Nexus.

The Flow Framework is a structured prescriptive approach to Value Stream Management in software delivery organizations. It identifies where work is flowing in your product value streams and where it’s slowing down so that you can decide how to address those bottlenecks. It also equips technology leaders with non-technical (and non-Agile) language to use with business stakeholders to set priorities and measure outcomes.

The Flow Framework generates its insights directly from the ground truth of what’s happening in the software delivery toolchain – the millions and millions of artifacts (requirements, features, epics, stories, features etc.) that represent the actual software delivery work.

Implementing the Flow Framework is not without effort; organizations must connect their network of tools, artifacts, and activities that constitute its product value streams, and it requires modeling the data to make abstraction and simplification possible.

Integrating the network, however, is not extra work or overhead – it’s the opposite. The connectivity provides the automation and flow necessary to remove waste from your value streams, like duplicate data entry, manual handovers, status meetings, and management-by-spreadsheet.

It also frees your teams to do the actual value-adding work that will make your enterprise competitive, as well as improving employee happiness by allowing associates to focus on motivating creative work.

How Does the Flow Framework Complement SAFe?

A common challenge raised about SAFe is that there is so much data, yet decision making is still hard. SAFe has a rich taxonomy of work items, which is beneficial for decomposing the many different types of work that an Agile team undertakes. It has fine-grained estimation facilities, such as the tracking of “story points”, which are beneficial to prioritization techniques such as the Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF).

In contrast, the Flow Framework has none of this – it assumes this kind of structure is in place. Its goal is to measure what your SAFe implementation is producing in much coarser terms, to communicate better with the people in finance or the business who don’t “speak Agile” and whose eyes glaze over when they hear about “story points”.

Thus, in the Flow Framework, all the work items generated by your SAFe implementation are mapped to just four flow items: features (new business value), defects (quality), risk (security, governance, compliance), and debt (removal of impediments to future delivery). The flow item types are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, meaning that all work that flows through a product value stream is characterized by one, and only one, of the flow items.

Once abstracted in this manner, you can have productive conversations with the business about prioritizing work. Trade-offs between new features and mounting technical debt become evident. Compliance and risk work receive the timely attention they deserve. Unplanned defect work can be measured, and adequate capacity gets reserved to handle it in future releases.

Diagram adapted from Gene Kim

Abstraction to four flow item types helps leadership understand how a heavy focus on feature work at product launch incurs mounting defect work, tech debt, and risk over time. You can easily comprehend and correlate this data with desired business outcomes, so everyone can see what’s working and what’s not, and ultimately what needs to be improved. It provides a universal language that can be used to provide the necessary conversations and alignment.

Finding Your Bottlenecks

What happens when your development team rocks, but the system’s bottleneck lies elsewhere? How can you spot your system’s current constraint? How do you know where to hire, where to automate, where to change a process?

We’ve seen that conundrum raised dozens of times as organizations advance through their SAFe implementations. You’re making mad progress in development only to be slowed down elsewhere – but where?

Let’s say your release trains and cadence are running properly from a process perspective. How would you know that one of your teams has significant wait times because they are unduly burdened with compliance authorizations that haven’t been automated yet?

All too often organizations cannot spot their real bottlenecks, because they cannot measure end-to-end flow. If you can’t measure the speed of your end-to-end value stream, you’ll never know when you’re slowing down. In many cases, the KPIs used to drive change are based on a siloed portion of the value stream, resulting in only local optimizations.

The Flow Framework measures the end-to-end software delivery value stream, from concept to cash. It tells you how long it takes to deliver something from the moment you’ve accepted the work.

It also traces an idea from strategic planning through deployment, through all the practitioners and tools involved. By measuring each flow item’s active and wait states, it reveals where things are taking too long. You can find out whether things are slowing down because they’re waiting for shared infrastructure, security testing or another team to finish their work. Armed with that knowledge, you can address those long wait times with appropriate solutions you know will have an impact.  

Understanding Flow Efficiency and Bottlenecks (Source: Dominica DeGrandis, Making Work Visible)

Transitioning from Project to Product

Organizations that want to become software innovators are moving away from project-oriented management, with its annual budgets, fixed milestones, and seasonal staff reallocations. They are replacing those legacy practices with product-oriented value streams that are aligned with the business’s focus on results.   

Product-oriented management funds and staffs long-lived teams and measures them against business outcomes. High-performing teams are empowered to continuously delight their customers by generating more and more value over the entire product lifecycle, instead of throughout a single fiscal year.

SAFe’s notion of value streams perfectly aligns with this. The Flow Framework drives the business to identify and formalize those value streams and capture the ground truth from their tools. It then becomes possible to manage a product value stream based on its own metrics and against its own business results. Furthermore, it empowers teams to measure the impact of the improvements they are making in accelerating the delivery of business value.

Collecting this information is no small feat because the data in question is housed piecemeal in multiple tools, across many projects, comprising potentially tens of artifact types. Until now, it has been prohibitively difficult to observe and measure the software delivery work on a single product.

With the Flow Framework, it’s finally possible to carve out, normalize and measure the subset of data for a single product from within the technical infrastructure in which it is housed, thanks to multiple levels of modeling – primary the product model.

The Flow Framework™ carves out product data from the many tools and systems in which it is housed.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

It is always best to use the right tool for the right job. For many, SAFe is the right tool to take an effective methodology, agile, and scale it to larger enterprises.

The Flow Framework is the right tool to provide the managerial oversight and insight to ensure that all of the methodologies and processes are increasing the rate of value delivery while delivering the right business outcomes.

Together SAFe and the Flow Framework address both the implementation and the management of software delivery for large scale organizations, with the shared goal of helping IT partner with the business to deliver innovation.  

To learn more about the Flow Framework and how it can improve your SAFe and other IT transformations, grab a copy of Project to Product (available in print, digital and audio) by clicking on the front cover:

Click image to pre-order a copy of the book.

Fancy a more personal touch? Get in touch about Flow 101 and Value Stream Management training.

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