The four Core Values of alignment, transparency, respect for people, and relentless improvement represent the foundational beliefs that are key to SAFe’s effectiveness. These tenets help guide the behaviors and actions of everyone participating in a SAFe portfolio. Those in positions of authority can help the rest of the organization embrace these ideals by exemplifying these values in their words and actions.
Like cars out of alignment, misaligned companies can develop serious problems. They are hard to steer and don’t respond well to changes in direction . Even if it’s clear where everyone thinks they’re headed, the vehicle is unlikely to get them there.
The same is true for organizations adopting SAFe as their new way of working. In Lean-Agile, many decisions are decentralized to deliver value in the shortest sustainable lead time (see SAFe Principle #9). However, if decisions pull the organization in different directions, significant delays and quality concerns will result. The solution is to provide clear, consistent alignment from the top of the enterprise through every level of SAFe, all the way to each individual contributor. Value delivery with speed and quality can consistently be achieved when everyone is aligned.
Here are specific ways to create and maintain alignment in SAFe.
Alignment starts with keeping the enterprise’s vision, mission, and strategy constantly present. For example, including these elements in the Business Owner briefings during PI planning is one way to ensure the work of the ART is consistent with the higher aims of the enterprise.
The next step is to make sure everyone in the SAFe Portfolio aligns their work to the most important things to the enterprise. Strategic themes explicitly translate business strategies into tangible guidance that aligns the portfolio vision, lean budgets, and epics to enterprise priorities and subsequently inform the work of teams and trains in the portfolio.
It’s difficult to achieve alignment if there’s inconsistency in how the organization describes important roles, processes, events, and artifacts. SAFe provides a common language and promotes practices (backlogs, ART boards, solution intent, portfolio vision, and so on) that maintain a common view of the work and the resulting solutions.
Creating alignment requires regular reinforcement. SAFe events (iteration planning, backlog refinement, PI planning, ART syncs, portfolio syncs) and SAFe artifacts (backlogs, team boards, ART boards, portfolio canvas) are just some of the tools that help the SAFe organization stay aligned. Face-to-face conversations are also essential for checking for understanding.
SAFe promotes continuous exploration with customer centricity and design thinking to gather inputs and perspectives from diverse stakeholders and information sources to ensure that the items in the backlogs are aligned with the most important voice of all… the customer.
Solution development is complex. Often, things go wrong or do not work out as planned. Without openness, facts are obscure, and decision-making is based on speculative assumptions and a lack of data. No one can fix a secret.
To ensure transparency—trust is needed. Trust exists when everyone can confidently rely on one another to act with integrity, particularly in times of difficulty. Without trust, it is impossible to build high-performing teams and trains or build (or rebuild) the confidence needed to make and meet reasonable commitments. Trust-based environments are also fun and motivating. Simply put, the new way of working promoted by SAFe will struggle to succeed without a culture of transparency and trust.
The following actions can help build a culture of transparency and trust in the SAFe enterprise.
Trust requires action, not just a feeling. People at every level of the organization must be willing to trust others and be trustworthy themselves. It means making and keeping commitments. It also means relinquishing control and trusting others to make and keep their commitments.
A frequently used mantra in SAFe is ‘the facts are friendly.’ Problems cannot be solved if they are hidden. In a trust-based environment, information is shared without embellishment or blame to resolve issues as quickly and effectively as possible.
People often learn more from their mistakes than from their successes, but this is effective only when those mistakes can be acknowledged without fear of retribution or punishment. Address mistakes as ‘learning moments’  to create the psychological safety needed to quickly surface and resolve errors.
Making all work visible is essential to transparency. In SAFe, this begins with all work at every level being captured in a continuously refined backlog. Other tools such as Kanban boards, ART boards, PI objectives, solution intent, collaboration tools, and shared knowledge repositories support the aim of keeping work visible and accessible to all.
Information that is difficult to find has the same impact as if that knowledge were intentionally hidden. True transparency requires that information is easily accessible to all who need it and that the location and means of access are well known. It requires a willingness to help each other find required information when the location is unclear and relentlessly improve systems to make accessing information as frictionless as possible.
Respect for People
A Lean-Agile approach doesn’t implement itself or perform any real work. In reality, people do all the work, and people receive all the value from the work.
Since people are the focal point of how enterprises create value with SAFe, respect for people must be considered in every aspect of the new way of working. Respect is a basic human need. When treated with respect, people are unleashed to evolve their practices and contribute their creativity. Conversely, people cannot commit to another person, their teams, or their organizations if they feel a lack of respect. When disrespect is widespread and tolerated, it creates a toxic work environment, poor performance, and a high attrition rate .
The following suggestions provide just a few ways to cultivate a culture of respect for people in an organization.
This is the literal meaning of ‘respect for people’ described in Lean. Elaborated further, it means fostering a corporate culture that enhances individual creativity and values teamwork while honoring mutual trust and respect .
Another way to show respect is to build organizations that include people with various personal and professional backgrounds. However, just hiring a diverse workforce is insufficient. Respect for people requires listening to and valuing perspectives and viewpoints different from our own.
Respect for people goes beyond a fundamental moral obligation. The practical business implication is that ‘it is necessary to develop good people in order to make good products.’ One way to help people grow is to facilitate connections with others inside and outside the organization who can contribute to each person’s development journey.
Lean and Agile methods are customer-centric, as both recognize that customers are the ultimate beneficiaries of value. In addition, Lean explicitly addresses the fact that all who consume your work, including people inside the organization, are customers too. Treating customers with respect and empathy produces products and services that address their real problems.
Many suppliers are required when building the world’s most complex systems. When applied to suppliers, respect means holding them in the same high regard as customers, challenging them, and helping them improve. This is done not by bullying or pressuring tactics but by creating long-term relationships defined by ‘win-win’ contracts based on mutual benefit and accountability.
The relentless pursuit of perfection has always been one of the core tenets of Lean. While unattainable, striving for perfection leads to continuous improvements to products and services. In the process, companies have created more and better products for less money and with happier customers, leading to higher revenues and greater profitability.
But improvement requires learning. Rarely are the causes and solutions for problems that organizations face clear and easily identified. Relentless improvement is built on a series of small iterative and incremental improvements and experiments that enable the organization to learn its way to the most promising answer to a problem.
The following moves can help build a culture of relentless improvement in a SAFe enterprise:
Improvement activities are essential to the survival of an organization and should be given priority, visibility, and resources. They require an intense focus on delivering value to customers by providing products and services that solve their problems in a preferred way over the organization’s competitors. Organizations that become complacent and fail to relentlessly improve with urgency risk losing customers and may ultimately go out of business.
Problem-solving is the driver for relentless improvement. It recognizes that a gap exists between the current and desired states, requiring an iterative process to achieve the target state. Iterative Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) cycles provide the process for iterative problem-solving on small adjustments as well as breakthrough innovations. The goal is to have a culture of ‘everyone improving all the time.’
It’s vital in SAFe to periodically pause from the never-ending backlog of new work to openly identify and address shortcomings of the process at all levels. Improvements should be managed and prioritized just like any other story or feature because improvement requires real work and consumes real capacity of teams and trains, as well as for those who guide the portfolio processes.
Improvements based on opinion or conjecture will likely focus on symptoms instead of true root causes. Improvement results are objectively measured, focusing on empirical evidence. This helps an organization concentrate more on the work needed to solve problems and less on assigning blame or on pursuing improvements that are not solving the original problem.
Improvements should be designed to increase the effectiveness of the entire system that produces the sustainable flow of value instead of optimizing individual teams, silos, or subsystems. Everyone at all levels should embrace improvement thinking, but improvements in one area, team, or domain should not be made to the detriment of the overall system. SAFe Principle #2 Apply systems thinking expands on this idea further.