Reignite Your SAFe® Journey with Flow Metrics

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“Business agility is the ability to compete and thrive in the digital age by quickly responding to market changes and emerging opportunities with innovative, digitally-enabled business solutions” – Scaled Agile 

Kate Chajka has been working on the frontline of Agile transformations for over 15 years. To say she has seen it all is an understatement. A passionate believer in the Scaled Agile Framework®the most popular Agile methodology for scaling software development, with 70% of the Fortune 100 employing SAFe professionals—she has seen first hand the myriad benefits of leveraging SAFe® to boost business agility in the digital age. 

Kate also knows, all too well, that the framework doesn’t guarantee business success on its own. As Dean Leffingwell, creator of the Scaled Agile Framework®, highlighted: you can’t do business agility without technical agility, yet technical agility alone won’t deliver business agility. 

“SAFe is an excellent map for connecting Agile development with the business,” says Kate. “The framework does an excellent job at providing a freely available knowledge base that serves as a one-stop-shop for modern lean-agile practices and DevOps. It also presents a language to help elevate conversation between teams and with leadership.” 

“At the same time, SAFe is not going to magically fix all our problems without the right mindset around why we’re changing the way we work, as well as tangibly seeing it’s improving a team’s daily work and impact on the business,” she continues. “Without attaching and measuring development work to business outcomes, leadership can become restless and frustrated with ROI, while development teams can become demotivated, frustrated, and fall out of love with their job.

“All change is hard, but I’ve seen it become more painful than necessary when not measuring clear outcomes. Instead of a scattershot approach of doing SAFe for SAFe’s sake and hoping for the best, we need to establish what practice is best for our organization, at that point in time, in the context that makes the most sense for us. We must have a deep understanding of what changes will have the biggest impact on velocity, predictability, efficiency, throughput and so on.”

Kate outlines that there are steps that we can take to introduce meaning and context to the work—the frequently missing “why”—while at the same time tracking the continuous improvement journey from both a team and leadership perspective.“That’s why I’m so excited to see Flow Metrics added to the latest SAFe iteration. Their lazer-like focus on measuring against shared goals and outcomes, it can truly reignite people’s SAFe journeys, helping everyone get out of their silos and work as “one team” to become truly agile to market and customer needs.” 

SAFe 5.1: A Flow-Based System

Last year, Leffingwell acknowledged that larger enterprises want more insight into their journey and visibility from the business perspective. “They want to know how they’re doing,” said Dean. “Are they meeting their benchmarks for adoption, are their outcomes improving, are the KPIs different? So, this need for business agility was expressed clearly.” Addressing these concerns, the latest version of SAFe (5.1) outlines three core metrics:

  • Outcomes: Are your solutions meeting the needs of customers and business?
  • Competency: Are you proficient in practices delivering customer value?
  • Flow: How efficient are you at delivering value to customers?

“As we are all experiencing, business agility sets new performance standards for organizations, requiring fast, effective response to emerging business opportunities,” writes Risa Wilmeth for Scaled Agile. “This mandates changes to what we measure, how we measure, and what to do with the data we receive. It is a critical enabler for continuously improving business performance. To support this goal, we have refactored, refined and extended our approach to metrics into three measurement domains, Outcomes, Flow and Competency. This provides a comprehensive, scalable, and yet simple measurement model which is applicable at every level of a SAFe Enterprise.”

© Scaled Agile, Inc.

Risa continues: “The flow measurement domain has been heavily influenced by the work of (Dr.) Mik Kersten. His Flow Framework® provides five metrics that can be used to measure different aspects of flow. As SAFe is a flow-based system, each of these metrics is directly applicable and are now incorporated into the SAFe body of knowledge.”

Safe Is Your Map, Flow Metrics Are Your GPS

The Flow Metrics help quantify your SAFe investment at both a leadership and team level. The metrics come from the Flow Framework, a complementary paradigm that provides a simple high-level view of the impact Agile, DevOps and other transformation initiatives are having on business results (like time-to-market, revenue, customer responsiveness and retention, staff turnover and more). 

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.

“The Flow Framework breathes life back into the Agile and SAFe practices,” continues Kate. “The simple concepts help you measure your SAFe practices—such as sprint goals, feature hypothesis and your PI objectives—against business outcomes to ensure you’re actually improving over time. If SAFe is the map, Flow Metrics are the ultimate GPS to guide us in real-time with critical information on what to do and where to go, constantly reflecting your current state and what you need to do to get better.”

Flow Metrics: Measuring Outcomes, Not Actions

While DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) and other Agile metrics (such as story points and t-shirt sizing) focus on team activities, we know from systems thinking that we need to take a holistic approach as software delivery is a complex adaptive process. Only with a macro view can we answer critical questions like:

  • Are we capable of rapid response to market changes?
  • With each PI, are we increasing the number of features delivered?
  • Is time-to-market getting shorter?
  • Is quality improving?
  • Are we maximizing the capacity of your FTEs and contractors?
  • Are our teams actively engaged or reverting to old ways of working (such as waterfall)?
  • Do you have visibility into upstream and downstream bottlenecks? 

What are Flow Metrics and Why Should I Care?

The Flow Metrics can help address some very real emotions and concerns that development teams feel. Whether it’s suffering from overload or frequent interruptions from new priorities, the inability to finish work or being plagued by constant delays, these metrics force us to dig into what is really negatively impacting the software delivery experience. 

  • Flow VelocityHow much customer value are we delivering over time?

Kate: “Teams often feel very “busy”, constantly working hard to deliver tasks as quickly as they can. It can be rewarding to see that hard work translated to value to the customer.”

  • Flow Efficiency – Is waste decreasing in our processes? What are the delays and wait times slowing us down?

Kate: “Often we accept delays as “business as usual”. Prior to flow thinking, we would watch the workers (are they busy?) rather than the work (is it progressing?). That often caused us to lose sight of the fact that despite teams being very busy, work is very often stuck and not moving. This metric helps us work smarter, not harder, by visualizing and removing these delays to reduce our Flow Time, increase our Flow Velocity and feel more productive.”

  • Flow Time – Is time-to-market getting shorter to outpace the competition and shorten feedback loops?

Kate: “Often we make a lot of changes in a transformation. “Adopt test-first/behavior-driven development! Automate testing! Adopt a CI/CD pipeline! Add more people on the team! Create cross-functional teams!” Always with the assumption that these changes will naturally lead to quicker delivery. However, it is critical to use data to confirm that the changes actually are causing a decrease in time, because often they can, in fact, be increasing the time it takes to deliver to the customer.”

  • Flow Load – Are we balancing demand vs. capacity to ensure future productivity?

Kate: “This is probably the most counter-intuitive yet the most powerful Flow Metric. We know we all feel overloaded and busy. Like there is always more work than time to complete. This is a metric that we certainly FEEL every day. But it often comes at a surprise that by taking on more and more work, we are actually slowing down our delivery. Starting work sooner does not cause it to complete sooner. Flow Load is an incredibly powerful leading indicator to help teams feel less overloaded and improve delivery!”

In addition to these Flow Metrics there is also Flow Distribution, which looks at the trade-offs between value creation and value protection work, which helps communicate tradeoffs and priorities to ensure a sustainable pace of delivery.

SAFe 5.1 adds another metric—Flow Predictability—which helps determine when customers are going to get the thing they asked for. As per the Scaled Agile: “Flow predictability measures how well teams, ARTs and Solution Trains are able to plan and meet their PI objectives. Flow Predictability is measured via the SAFe Program Predictability Measure (PPM) (see below). The PPM calculates the ratio of planned business value achieved to actual business value delivered in a PI. Low or erratic predictability makes delivery commitments unrealistic and often highlights underlying problems in technology, planning, or organization performance that need addressing. Reliable trains should operate in the 80–100 percent range; this allows the business and its stakeholders to plan effectively.”

© Scaled Agile, Inc.

Flow Predictability is a lagging measure that provides feedback about our ability to define PI plans that are carried out. Combined with other Flow Metrics, you can better understand the current velocity of ARTs and plan accordingly. This feedback loop can help predictability moving forward, helping teams to manage expectations with technology and business about how much they can deliver and when. This capability builds confidence between leadership and teams that the most pressing business needs will be delivered on time. 

“Focusing on our predictability of delivering what we said we would when we said we would helps us stabilize our delivery,” concludes Kate. “With that, we gain trust from our customers and stakeholders. This is exciting, as predictability is often missing in software development using both traditional project management as well as Agile practices.”

Feel like Your SAFe Journey is Losing Steam?

If you’re far down the SAFe road and feel like you’ve lost your way, don’t worry: you can still find your bearings and reach your destination. You’ve made some fantastic strides to scale Agile across the organization and Flow Metrics can help you build on that progress and make sure you’re rewarded for all that effort. The focus on flow can inspire and enthuse your teams as the goal of SAFe becomes crystal clear: delivering more value for the business with happier, less stressed teams.

To learn more about Flow Metrics and SAFe, sign up for our upcoming webinar Align, Inform, Inspire: Measuring Business Agility and SAFe® with Flow Metrics (Tuesday, August 17 at 9:00 (PT), 14:00 (EST)

Join SAFe Fellow and Framework team member, Andrew Sales, and Tasktop Sr. Value Stream Architect, Lee Reid, for a webinar describing how the three measurement domains of SAFe—Outcomes, Flow, and Competency—provide a comprehensive, yet simple, model for measuring business agility at every level of the enterprise and view data from an actual product value stream. Learn how Flow Metrics can enable productive conversations with the business about prioritizing work, while still maintaining the taxonomy of SAFe for teams to implement and improve.

Key Takeaways:

  • How to define specific metrics within each domain for measuring teams, ARTs, Solution Trains and entire SAFe Portfolios
  • How to measure the rate of business value delivery for software products with clearly defined Flow Metrics tied to business outcomes
  • How to map the four flow items (Feature, Defect, Debt and Risk) to the work items generated by your SAFe implementation
  • How to correlate this data with desired business outcomes, so everyone can see what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to be improved
  • How to apply common success patterns for effective measurement, and use the insights to identify opportunities for improvement

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