SAFe Simply Explained (Part 2): Basic Idea and Most Important Terms

Annalena Simonis, Wednesday 08 September 2021 | Reading time: 6 min.

To understand the complex method of SAFe, it helps to understand the most important terms first. In this second article of our series, we will therefore explain the basic idea as well as the most relevant roles and terms in the agile enterprise according to SAFe.

The SAFe method is based on the Lean philosophy and offers a fixed framework in which Scrum and other agile management methods can be scaled to the entire company. In the previous part of this series, we already explained the basic core competencies and principles needed to successfully implement SAFe in the enterprise. Although the Scaled Agile Framework was designed to provide a simple introduction with a lot of familiar terms, roles, and methods, the concept is so broad that it may seem very complex at first. This is why we want to briefly summarize the basic concept as well as the most relevant terms that are relevant for the initial understanding of the method in this blog post.


The basic concept

SAFe divides enterprise agility into three level of abstractions:

  • Team level (Scrum teams)
  • Program level ("project" level)
  • Portfolio level (entire organization)

The basic idea of the method is to divide all work steps into many different cycles, which are coordinated beyond the individual levels. Each level has its own requirements, events, assignees as well as fixed time frames for the completion of their tasks. The Scrum team, which is certainly known by many readers, works on smaller requirements (stories) within 1-4 weeks (sprints). Several sprint teams work together at the same pace to create a specific product within a certain period of time. On the program level, several cross-functional teams work together on the next larger requirement. The so-called feature is thus implemented in a larger cycle (2-3 months). Various events bring the individual cycles together, ensuring smooth collaboration across all levels and teams.


The most important terms


Agile Release Train (ART)

ARTs are key elements in making agility scalable across the organization. Most often, agility takes place in small teams that focus on delivering pieces to a big picture. In SAFe, multiple cross-functional agile teams join together to form what are called Agile Release Trains to achieve a common "higher" goal (feature) in set timeboxes and create a continuous flow of value and ultimately a steady benefit to the end user. ARTs typically consist of 50-125 people from all disciplines (software, hardware, firmware). They work as a virtual organization and plan, develop and implement all tasks together.

Agile Teams

In SAFe, an agile team is a cross-functional group of 5-11 people who define, create, test, and deliver a value increment (product increment) in a set time frame. As in Scrum, each team has two key roles: the Scrum Master and the Product Owner. Agile teams drive the Agile Release Train and therefore the entire company. In ART, all teams collaborate with other teams to achieve a common product increment.

Business Agility

Business Agility is the ability to remain competitive and operate successfully in the digital age by responding quickly to market changes and new opportunities with innovative, digitally-enabled solutions. Business agility requires that everyone involved in producing output - business and engineering executives, development, IT, sales, marketing, finance, support, compliance, and others - adopt lean and agile practices to continuously deliver innovative, high-quality products and services faster than the competing companies.

Continuous Delivery Pipeline (CDP)

The Continuous Delivery Pipeline (CDP) represents the workflows, activities, and automated processes required to deliver a new application from concept to on-demand release to the end user. The pipeline consists of four aspects: Continuous Exploration (CE)Continuous Integration (CI)Continuous Deployment (CD), and Release on Demand. The pipeline is an essential element of the Agile Product Delivery competency. Each Agile Release Train (ART) creates and maintains a pipeline of required resources and technologies to deliver the solution value (Program Increment) as independently as possible. The first three elements of the pipeline (CE, CI, and CD) work together to support the delivery of small quantities of new features, which are then released at the right time of market demand (Release on Demand).

Development Value Streams (DVS)

Development Value Streams are the sequence of activities required to transform a hypothetical business idea into a digitally-enabled solution. For example, the design of a medical device, the development and deployment of a software application, or an e-commerce website. In contrast to Operational Value Streams, in DVS, ideas and solutions are defined, created, and implemented by professionals such as software developers, product managers, and engineers.


Iterations are the foundation stone of agile development. Each iteration is a standardized timebox of fixed length in which agile teams incrementally deliver value in the form of functional, tested software and systems. The recommended duration of the timebox is two weeks. Iterations provide a regular, predictable sequence for teams to produce value and improve what they have already developed. These short periods help the team, product owners, product managers, and other stakeholders regularly test and evaluate the technical and business requirements in a working system.

Operational Value Streams (OVS)

In contrast to the Development Value Streams, which are more concerned with developing ideas, the OVS focuses on the activities required to deliver products or services to the customer. This includes, for example, the manufacture of the product, the completion of an assignment, but also the distribution of the products. Many employees here also have direct customer contact, whether in sales or support.

Program Increment (PI)

The Program Increment (PI) is a timeframe in which the Agile Release Train delivers incremental value in the form of functional, tested software and systems. PIs are typically 8 - 12 weeks long. The most common schedule for a PI is four development iterations, followed by an innovation and planning (IP) iteration. A PI is to an Agile Release Train what an iteration is to the agile team. It is a fixed timeframe for planning, building, and validating a full system increment, presenting value, and getting quick feedback.


All explanations of terms can be found bundled in the glossary on the official SAFe website


In the third part of this series on the Scaled Agile Framework, we will introduce you to the configuration options that the concept offers. Until then, read other articles from this series or on similar topics:

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