Scaling Agile with Frameworks – a SAFe path to LeSS work?

Ok, I admit right away that am just fooling around with the names of the two known large scale agile frameworks in the title – SAFe is the Scaled Agile Framework by Dean Leffingwell and company, and LeSS is Large Scale Scrum by Bas Vodde and Craig Larman.

The first book I read about scaling agile was from Dean Leffingwell, in 2007. I met Bas Vodde at my first Scrum Gathering in Stockholm 2008, and after I heard him talk about feature teams, I bought the book about scaling agile by him and Craig Larman as well, and of course we tried to apply much of that during our agile transition at Siemens Healthcare SYNGO. The book came very helpful since it clarified many of the questions behind the simple mechanics of agile, e.g. which effects queues have on you development organization, or how should the organization structure adapt to agile, and which other topics or areas beyond R&D are concerned.

In the last couple of months various people kept asking me about “Should we apply a large-scale framework to our agile transition?” – and asking back I get the underlying questions, of course, will we be faster, safer, cheaper, avoid start-up problems, will we have to read less stuff and discuss less if there are solutions available online and even people rolling out the one or the other framework licensed by the respective framework’s prophet(s)?

OK, let’s see if they themselves come with a warning message, like the drugs do in Germany, a little paper full of text that is in each box.



„LeSS is not “new and improved Scrum.” Rather, it is regular Scrum, an empirical process framework in which you can inspect and adapt to any method and work in a group of any size. Large-scale Scrum is a set of additional rules and the set of tips that we have seen work in large multi-team, multisite, and offshore agile development initiatives. These tips are experiments to try in the context of the classic Scrum framework.“ (



The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is a proven knowledge base for implementing agile practices at enterprise scale.” “We, the contributors, offer this web version to the market in the hope that it will help all software development practitioners and team – as well as their employers – enjoz the satisfaction that comes from delivering ever-higher quality software at ever-faster speed” (

OK, sounds good, but how can people start using it?

Now I switch to the “Implementation” page of SAFe: (

Implementation is done in three steps, which come with lots of training and certification with trained and certified SAFe trainers: step 1 Change Agents, step 2 Management & Executives, step 3 teams and agile release trains – challenging, in 5 days per train, 8-12 Scrum teams per release train. Maybe it is intended for different kinds of enterprises than those I know, which have a lot of legacy to reflect about: structures, processes, products, codebases… and include properly into their new setup, so that they can go on delivering something to their customers.


So what do the LeSS guys say about implementation?

“These principles are crucial to an organizational LeSS adoption:

  • deep and narrow over broad and shallow
  • top-down and bottom-up
  • use volunteering”

“Prefer applying LeSS in one product really well over applying LeSS in many groups poorly.

Focus LeSS adoption effort on one product group, give them all the support they need, and ensure they work really well. This minimizes risk and if you fail it triggers a focused learning opportunity. And when you succeed it creates a positive “word on the floor” that’s vital nourishment for further adoption.”

And so on. I could not have phrased it better.

It reminds me of what a manager from another big company reported last year: lean and agile transitions worked great in their organizations which had self-chosen to transition with a mixed bottom-up/top-down approach, and where there were convinced local coaches. It did not work at all in organizations that were made “lean” through a big top-down rollout.

Frankly, I cannot imagine that any internal coaches who have neither seen nor done any agile work themselves, in product development teams on the ground, can be of much use in a large-scale rollout. So you need to start small, experiment, learn your own lessons.

By the way: yes, the LeSS guys are also offering trainings and even certifications. I would recommend to send people there who are already such local agile practitioners and have either worked in an agile team themselves for at least one year, or have been active participants in a transition team at smaller scale for at least the same time, and take the course in order to know more and improve, or roll out to a larger part of their organizations.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the SAFe framework can also a great source of inspiration and hints for solutions for organizations going agile in small or large-scale. I remember that we had a problem with making the product owner team feel responsible for prioritizing technical debt and technical improvements high enough, and we found a good example in SAFe how this can be solved: by agreeing on a percentage of the organization’s velocity dedicated to technical improvements by mutual agreement between architects and product owners, and then prioritization of actual technical backlog items by the architects.

Then only thing that I am very convinced about is that you cannot buy a large-scale agile transition, you do have to do it yourselves.

The hardest job in a lean/agile transition is with the managers

When you are doing a lean/agile transition in a traditional organization, definitely the hardest job is related to the management.
I already highlighted the role and responsibility of executives in a lean/agile transition in another post two years ago. The people on the working level get into their new roles and practices. They are constantly doing retrospectives and improving their work, and even driving improvement through the organization. They experiment, get feedback and learn from it.

Now what will the middle managers do when they are not frequently needed for fire fighting in the projects? How are they going to practice new skills and habits that they need in the new agile world? And how much of the newly created trust and self-organization can a manager destroy with some harsh enquiry to a team?

At the beginning, many of the managers are obviously more or less engaged in the transition itself. Managers will also sit together and find out how they can coach teams, how they can help people to grow, and how they should do now hiring, performance evaluation, and distribute salary increases and bonuses under agile circumstances.

However, also during the transition it is easy to stay in a command-and-control mode or at least frequently fall back into it. After that, it is getting worse. Managers are moving around in organizations, some leave the place, others join. These others may be joining the company or department for totally different reasons than wanting to be a servant leader, a coach for growing people. Maybe they just want to work in this area. Period.

Now we need practices by which the managers stay constantly engaged with lean and agile ideas.


One of these topics is Continuous Improvement. It is one of the two pillars of Lean. Hakan Forss explains this is his Toyota Kata presentation – see slides or video.It starts with a common vision for the process of the organization that can probably never reached, and realistic but challenging goals on their way there. Then a team or several teams are improving by experimenting with small changes towards a next target condition, in turn with measuring the results. A lot of learning is involved in this, for the participants as well as for the organization.

Managers can be part of a team for changing things, especially above the level of a single agile team, for solving organizational problems, problems with processes and tools – always following a common vision with the teams, of course. Or they can also train to be a coach for doing this change. Of course, they have to take care like any other coach, that they have practiced the improvement kata themselves often enough, probably with an external coach, before they try to coach someone else.

Managers need to study and practice lean values and practices that they apply to their work with the teams. This can happen in self-study groups with the other managers, and everybody applies it individually. The challenge is always how they are getting feedback to their behaviour.  A good starting point may be the book Management 3.0. by Jurgen Appelo, that give some backgrounds on how a team behaves as an adaptive complex system, and how to grow a team, how to stop demotivating it, and how the boundaries influence the behaviour. His new Management 3.0. Workout book has a lot of tools that managers can apply, from the kudo box to the delegation board, ready to use or to adapt to their organization. By using these tools they slightly change the way how they are treating teams and individuals, expression more respect for people, which happens to be the other pillar of Lean.

Apart from using lean and agile practices in their own work, managers should also do the famous „Gemba walks„. This means going to the people who are actually working, and listening to them, e.g. during their daily standup meetings. The main challenge here is to do it without disrupting or frustrating the teams, e.g. by listening to two sentences and then throwing in an „easy solution“ to a problem without having enough knowledge for really helping them. Instead, only when the team seems to be clueless they can ask a couple of good questions for enabling them to find a solution themselves.

I am curious to learn in which other ways companies get their managers into „lean mode“ and keep them actively thinking lean and practicing lean.

Large Scale Agile at XP2013 Vienna – exchanging knowledge at a great conference!

From my perspective, the 14th International Conference on Agile Software Development XP2013 in Vienna was a great success. It took me to another level of confidence about what is needed to create and sustain a large scale agile organization.

The XP conferences are traditionally about programming and testing in an agile – XP – way, and organizing the team so that it supports XP practices. But they have grown into a conference that also covers  product ownership and design, leading agile teams and organizations, and even extending agile to the rest of the organization – this is agile real life in the industry.  What I like very much at XP conferences in general is the good mixture of experienced agile people from industry, some very well known consultants, and a lot of academic researchers who also are working close to industry about agile topics.


(Photo: Hubert Baumeister)

On the first day I got absorbed by the Executives & Managers Track with firsthand experience from four different companies: ABB, Ericsson, Johnson Controls and Nokia. Most valuable! The managers were speaking openly about what it takes to get agile, how their company transformation programs took one step after the other to establish agile on all levels. And this is still an unfinished journey, but it has a clear north. An important point from the talk of Hendrik Esser, who is Head of Portfolio and Technology Management at Ericsson, is

To embrace change, you have to change 3 things together
· Culture
· Practices and process
· Structure

You should never see agile as a process only, this will inevitably lead to failure. The most important cultural foundation for the agile transformation is building trust, and on top of the trust you can build transparency.

These three important transformations were mentioned by Per Branger from ABB in Sweden, but are basically identical to what Ericsson is doing:
· Continuous Portfolio Management
· Continuous Release Management
· Continuous Development

When they noticed at ABB that they are really a big software developing company, coming from a background of electrical engineering, they launched a massive knowledge and skills improvement program. The remarkable thing is that they measure progress by self-assessment of every developer against description of expected skills, and that the training comes in small portions and by self-assignment as well. Wiki based knowledge bases and Q&A tools that remind a bit of the famous stackoverflow website support the learning as well.  “Carrots, no sticks” opens also the path to using common tools.

Gregory Yon is Agile Coach at Johnson Controls and talked about how he is extending agile into the rest of the organization, to the non-development teams as well as convincing different levels of management from the agile values and needs. From him as well as from the other managers I learned that we can never communicate too much to higher management about the advantages of agile, and that we need  to measure things and compare with previous projects to show how we have advanced since the old times of waterfall.

Jorgen Hesselberg, Senior Manager, Enterprise Agile Transformation, Nokia (Chicago US) explained how they are using on all levels Agile Working Groups, mixed from management and project roles, to start and sustain agile transitions at each Business Unit, and keep them up and to extend agile to the whole company. The positive results of agile on the results as well as on the employee motivation are impressive.

My own presentation on our Distributed Product Owner Team for an Agile Medical Development was on the second day, and I loved the discussion with a couple of other speakers and participants about the needed knowledge and skills for this role, and the needs for communication in the PO team and with teams and customers. I have also learned that there is actually an open group of experts from industry and research with the goal to foster software product management excellence across industries, the International Software Product Management Association (ISPMA) , who are interested in collecting such practical experience, and are creating resources for professional software product management training.

At the academic track, I found a couple of presentations on the last day very interesting: A research paper by Jeanette Heidenberg, Max Weijola, Kirsi Mikkonen, and Ivan Porres – A Metrics Model to Measure the Impact of an Agile Transformation in Large Software Development Organizations asks whether an agile transformation was worth the effort. For this, they were looking for metrics that support agile values, focus on the whole organization, not individual or teams, and are applicable to both waterfall and agile projects. Also they should be feasible to collect for past and ongoing projects, in any size of project, and be objective and clear. They did an iterative approach with first formulating the goal, then ask practitioners for metrics used, compare them against their values and goals, and finally select a collection of metrics. They have some really helpful metrics that we can apply to learn how much we have already improved through agile, at least in some aspects.

The paper Continuous Release Planning in a Large-Scale Scrum Development Organization at Ericsson by Ville Heikkilä, Maria Paasivaara, Casper Lassenius, and Christian Engblom was complementing very well with the talk of Hendrik Esser, as they are exactly describing how the release planning for individual features works, and which experiences people at Ericsson had with this method.

Of course there were also great keynote speakers at XP2013 in Vienna, a helpful Open Space, a wonderful conference reception, and great conversations in the breaks.


As always, thank you very much for the photos, Hubert Baumeister.

The next XP conference will take place in May 2014 in Rome, which is also a nice place to go to.  I will convince some of our colleagues and managers of submitting a talk and participating – we have a lot of experience we can share!

Best Regards

A great audiovisual 15 min training on Product Ownership

Yesterday a friend sent me the link to a great audiovisual mini-training on Product Ownership, that Henrik Kniberg just published on the CRISP blog

It is amazing. It does not only explain important aspects of the Product Owner role is an easy to understand way, but also visualizes central aspects of agile software development like fast feedback, velocity, and release forecast. And all of this in only 15 min!

The technique used reminds me of the famous „RSA Animate“ 10 min science videos. One of the most remarkable maybe the one explaining Dan Pink’s research about what motivates us.

Well done, Henrik!

Great places to work: learning from SEMCO

A couple of weeks ago in Karmakonsum, a German blog for eco fair life style and economy, I came across Ricardo Semler and SEMCO – the incredibly successful Brazilian company that is directed mostly by its workers and employees since the 1980es. How did I not discover it earlier? Now that I have read Semler´s book „Maverick“ from 1993, I have found a lot of good things to learn for companies who want to get really agile and lean beyond software development departments.

At SEMCO they have proven it is possible to get rid of basically all kind of bureaucracy, if you start treating your employees as adults.
Written down process manuals are replaced by common sense, expanded knowledge, plus motivation to do your work in the best possible way to make your company succeed. Control and the needed to ask for permission for all kind of small things can be reduced to a minimum, from travel expenses to lunch invitations – if you just ask everybody to employ common sense, and have transparency on the numbers. Transparency is an important part of the SEMCO miracle. All employees and workers have full knowledge of revenue and expenses. This allows them to take meaningful decisions in factory committees, about what to change to get more efficient and make the customers happier. They are also fixing their own wages and hiring their managers. Hey, managers, getting scared now?

Of course such a company also needs leaders. But being leader there is not a question of status and privileges. They do not expect big personal offices and secretaries, but are just full of new ideas and ask nasty questions.

One important human organization principle that the company leaders adopted is keeping the units small: one plant or sub-company should not be bigger than 150 people. Pretty interesting, that Dave Snowdon gave the same number in his ALE2011 keynote asan evolution-built-in human constant for the size of a group a human will be able to identify with.

Democracy and open communication define the SEMCO identity rather than saying they agree in this or that business. There is a lot we can learn from them, if we are brave and fearless. Starting at a huge company may not be as easy, as there are politics around on many levels, and dragons.
What seems more promising to me is starting at a small or mid sized company, where the existing amount of process is not so overwhelming. First I would inspire lean and Agile principles. Software developers are often open to democratic principles, and shop floor workers often already know and apply a few lean methods nowadays. If we then start to engage teams of software and hardware developers, scientists, workers and sales people in how to build better products for the customers, our how to make design or production more efficient, they will sparkle with new ideas.
As people are learning together and get a broader view on the company’s goals and the boundary conditions, they can make good improvement proposals. Then step by step some of them will learn to see the whole, at least to have a bigger interest in the company’s business, and feel responsible for making their work more efficient.

Another book I have read recently is „Delivering Happiness“ from Tony Hsieh, which will get its own blog post: learning how to really, really have company values and use them in daily life.