Levels of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

February 22, 2021

By Simpliaxis

The effectiveness of Agile methodologies and frameworks in commercial and business enterprises has been proven beyond doubt. The framework helps deliver an optimized product to the customer in the fastest possible and most effective manner. SAFe or the Scaled Agile Framework is being consistently deployed at four levels across organizations. These three levels of the Scaled Agile Framework are – 


  1. Portfolio 
  2. Program, and 
  3. Team

In the latest version of SAFe that is 5.0, another level has been included, and that is Large Solution. As the framework evolves, improvements and improvisations are being frequently added to the framework.

SAFe – what does it mean?

Scaled Agile Framework is about delivering value by following a centralized strategy aligned with the organizational goals. The emphasis of Enterprise-Scale Agile is coupled with Agile development methods that are decentralized for maximal viability of SAFe.

Before understanding the three levels of the Scaled Agile framework, it is critical to know about a few more terms and processes:

1. Essential SAFe – This is the basic form of SAFe and consists of two layers – Team and Program level. The Agile Manifesto says that the work done should be minimized because that is a smart way, and the work that is not done should be maximized to keep things simple. It has ten elements that include – 

  • ART
  • PI planning
  • Lean-Agile Principles
  • Synchronization
  • DevOps 
  • System-level Demo
  • Inspection and adapting
  • Iteration and innovation
  • Leadership 
  • Architectural Runaway.

2. Large solution SAFe – It was introduced over and above the Essential Framework. Moving away from simplicity, in this framework, complexity or a complex system is looked at. In this framework, other than the team and program level, another level was added called the large solution level. The level is used when large solutions and complicated systems need to be developed or built. In this context, different ARTs sync and work together so that value can be delivered. Other than the ten elements of Essential SAFe, there were additions made in this framework. These are:

  • Train so that multiple trains can coordinate
  • Intent to ensure that a quality system is developed.
  • Context to explain the interface of the system.
  • Kanban is used to supervise capability flow.

3. Portfolio SAFe – This is used in medium and large enterprises where there are more than 500 developers. In medium-scale enterprises, portfolio SAFe is good to go. In big enterprises, there are multiple portfolios, SAFe. The key characteristics are:

  • Authorized decision-making.
  • Lean budget
  • Funding people for effective delivery of value
  • Use of portfolio Kanban
  • Visibility of work
  • To describe the objectives of the portfolio framework, a Portfolio canvas is used.

4. Full SAFe – Scaled Agile has built a comprehensive level that includes all the four layers called the team, program, large solutions, and portfolio level. 

Four levels of a Scaled Agile framework

1. Portfolio Level

At this level of SAFe, the goals and objectives for the whole enterprise are provided. At this level, it is quite clear; the focus is the organization and the associated priority, life, and value.

A Portfolio Management Office or the PMO is responsible for managing Lean practices and SAFe at this level. For an average-sized organization, the entire organization is the portfolio, while for a bigger enterprise, there could be numerous portfolios. Take the example of a bank – it will have different portfolios like personal loan division, home loan division, credit card, etc. 

The critical aspects of the Portfolio level include:

  • It is the topmost level.
  • Here, the vision and goals are defined
  • Strategies are defined
  • Epic or Business Cases are defined.
  • Serious business factors like funding and change management are handled at this level.
  • The product road map is prepared. 
  • Lean principles are used in progress measurement. 
  • It leads to large-scale projects where once the vision and architectural epics are defined at the top-level, they are handed down to the SAFe development team.

Towards the development of new products, the team at the Portfolio level, carry out tasks like 

  • Mentoring teams and program groups on Lean and Agile practices, 
  • Ensure that the strategies are being realized, 
  • Provide support to the teams for fulfilling the initiatives, 
  • Review the value delivered and 
  • Measure the portfolio’s productivity. 

The advantage of SAFe vis-à-vis Waterfall methodology is that every step in the process becomes proficient because it is based on realistic metrics, iterative feedback, and thorough knowledge. The leading players are the Chief Technical Officer, Chief Information Officer, Enterprise Architects, Enterprise Coaches, Chief Product Managers, and Portfolio Managers. One of the biggest pros of the Portfolio Level is that it helps optimize the cost to market.

2. Program level 

The next level is the program level and considered the most important of all the Scaled Agile framework levels. The central aspect of the level is the Agile Release Train or ART. The ART consists of eight to ten team members responsible for delivering value in a particular project. It is noteworthy that each ART has a specific goal to achieve. Towards this end, they develop particular products and apps that are synced with customer requirements. The work happens on a continued basis and involves long-term development. The initiatives within ART are aligned using SAFe value streams. 

The key people involved in this layer are – business analysts, architects, release train engineers, UX, and more. There are two teams in the DevOps team and the systems team.

The critical aspects of the Program level include:

  • Continued review and update of program backlog. The objective is to prioritize and place the most critical items on the top.
  • ARTs provide an estimate of the time that will be required to develop a feature.
  • They are responsible for analyzing and strategizing to break-down features into smaller parts so that the value delivery can be faster.
  • Preparing WSJF (Weighted Shortest Job First) based on the time, delay cost, business value, and other factors. Items with higher WSJF score means that they need to be prioritized higher and need more attention. 

Uses –

  • Program Increments (PI), which is a cadence-based iterative process. PI takes place at intervals of eight to twelve weeks. Cross-functional teams in the ART strategize and define goals to reduce risks and define dependencies. PI works on the philosophy of shared ownership. Each PI is the ideal way to assess the past and decide the roadmap for the future. Every stakeholder is well-informed, and everybody is at the same level due to the PI.

3. Team Level

At this SAFe Agile level, SAFe gets identical to Scrum or Kanban. Like in the latter, SAFe teams use an iterative method where the entire work is divided into Sprints that usually are two weeks in duration. Similar to Scrum, there are events and artifacts. Against every Release Planning done at the Program level, a Sprint is planned during the Sprint Planning ceremony by the SAFe team. 

The key members responsible and play an essential role at the Team level are the Developers, the Testers, Scrum Master, the Product Owner, Business Analysts, User Experience specialists, etc.

The critical aspects of the Program level include:

  • The goal of the team level is the delivery of value
  • There are roles, activities, events, and processes that all Agile teams need to work on
  • Extreme Programming is used as the base for engineering practices
  • Continuous Integration is a must-follow for scalability
  • Test-Driven Deployment or TDD is used for ensuring quality
  • A Backlog is used for building stories, and the same are built and tested in iterations
  • The events include Sprint Planning, Sprint Retrospective, and more

Of all the levels of a Scaled Agile framework, the team level is the starting level. The Scaled Agile Framework advises that enterprises spend a substantial time getting experienced at Scrum at this particular level. It is essential to acquire relevant experience in this level before going in for SAFe adoption at the enterprise level. Only when organizations gain enough experience and know-how at the team level should they proceed further with the Program level and Portfolio levels of SAFe. By adopting the team level first and becoming proficient in Scrum events and artifacts, teams can go ahead with the program level and enterprise-level adoption of SAFe.

With improvements in SAFe, today, there are four levels of the Scaled Agile framework. 

4. Value Stream Layer,

Value stream layes is a mix of program teams and ARTs. There are two types of value streams – development and operational. At the operational stage, the company interacts with the clients, and at the development stage, new products are developed.


Different levels of SAFe helps enterprises in the effective deployment of Agile. SAFe is one of the most popularly used frameworks by Agile enterprises, and the different levels help in the optimized execution of value delivery and fulfilling organizational goals.



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