Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount
of work not done–is essential.

—The Agile Manifesto

Essential SAFe

Essential SAFe contains the minimal set of roles, events, and artifacts required to continuously deliver business solutions via an Agile Release Train (ART) as a Team of Agile Teams.

The Agile Release Train (ART) is the heart of Essential SAFe. ARTs are virtual organizations formed to span functional boundaries, eliminate unnecessary handoffs and steps, and accelerate value delivery by implementing SAFe Lean-Agile principles and practices.

The Essential SAFe  configuration (Figure 1) includes the following constructs:

  • Three core competencies:
    • Team and Technical Agility – Describes the critical skills and Lean-Agile principles and practices that high-performing Agile teams and Teams of Agile teams use to create high-quality solutions for their customers.
    • Agile Product Delivery – Is a customer-centric approach to defining, building, and releasing a continuous flow of valuable products and services to customers and users.
    • Lean-Agile Leadership – Describes how Lean-Agile Leaders drive and sustain organizational change and operational excellence by empowering individuals and teams to reach their highest potential.
  • The essential level roles, artifacts, and events
  • A minimal spanning palette


Figure 1. Essential SAFe

Essential SAFe provides a starting point for implementing SAFe.  Also, there are ten critical success factors needed for an ART to realize the majority of the framework’s benefits (see the last section of this article.)


Essential SAFe provides the relevant roles, artifacts, events, and mindset for ARTs to deliver one or more desirable, feasible, viable, and sustainable Solutions, or parts of a Solution.  The ART’s long-lived, flow-based, self-organizing nature is what powers SAFe and ultimately enables Business Agility. Many trains are virtual, spanning organizational and geographic boundaries; others follow a line of business or product line management reporting structure.


The highlights of Essential SAFe include:

  • Agile Release Train – Is a long-lived team of Agile teams, which, along with other stakeholders, incrementally develops, delivers, and where applicable operates, one or more Solutions in a value stream.
  • Continuous Delivery Pipeline – Describes the workflows, activities, and automation needed to provide a constant release of value to the end-user.
  • Customer Centricity – Is a mindset and a way of doing business that focuses on creating positive experiences, such as the customer journey, which takes buyers through the full set of products and services that the enterprise offers.
  • Design Thinking – Is a customer-centric development process that creates desirable products that are profitable and sustainable over their lifecycle.
  • Program Increment (PI) – Is a timebox in which an ART delivers incremental value. PIs are typically 8 – 12 weeks long, and the most common pattern for a PI is four development Iterations followed by one Innovation and Planning (IP) iteration.
  • Iterations – Are fixed-length timeboxes that provide the development cadence for Agile teams building Features and components. Each iteration delivers a valuable increment of new functionality.
  • Innovation and Planning (IP) Iteration – Provides the teams with an opportunity for exploration and innovation, dedicated time for planning, and learning through informal and formal channels.
  • ScrumXP – Is a lightweight process for Agile Teams to deliver value continuously. ScrumXP uses the Scrum framework for managing the team and their work as well as XP-derived quality practices.
  • Team Kanban – Is a Lean method that helps teams facilitate the flow of value by visualizing workflow, establishing Work in Process (WIP) limits, measuring throughput, and continuously improving their process.
  • Built-In Quality – Ensures every solution increment is high in quality and can readily adapt to change.
  • DevOps – Is a mindset, culture, and a set of technical practices. It provides communication, integration, automation, and close cooperation among all the people needed to plan, develop, test, deploy, release, and maintain a system.


ARTs are self-managing and self-organizing teams of Agile teams that plan, commit, and execute together. There are roles on the Agile Team and additional ART roles that help guide and direct the ART, align the teams to a shared mission, and provide the necessary Lean governance:

ART Roles

  • Product Management – Represents the internal voice of the customer and works with customers and Product Owners to understand and communicate their needs, define system features, and participate in validating results. They are responsible for the Program Backlog.
  • System Architect/Engineering – Is an individual or small cross-discipline team that truly applies Principle #2, Apply Systems Thinking. They define the overall architecture for the system, help identify Nonfunctional Requirements (NFRs), determine the significant elements and subsystems, and help design the interfaces and collaborations among them.
  • Release Train Engineer (RTE) – Is a servant leader and the chief Scrum Master for the train. The RTE facilitates optimizing the flow of value by ensuring the ART events and artifacts function correctly, including the Program Kanban, Inspect & Adapt (I&A) workshop, ART Sync, and PI Planning.
  • Business Owners – Are a small group of stakeholders who have the business and technical responsibility for fitness for use, governance, and return on investment (ROI) for a Solution developed by an ART. They are primary stakeholders in the ART and actively participate in ART events.

Team Roles

  • Agile Teams – Are cross-functional groups of 5-11 individuals who can define, build, test, and deploy an increment of value in a short time box. Each ART is composed of 5 – 12 Agile teams and includes the roles and infrastructure necessary to deliver fully working and tested business solutions.
  • Product Owner (PO) – Is content authority for the team backlog and responsible for defining stories and prioritizing the backlog.
  • Scrum Master – Is a servant leader and Agile team coach that helps the team to remove impediments, facilitates team events, and fosters an environment for high-performing teams.


Essential SAFe has multiple activities to help coordinate the ARTs and teams:

ART Events

  • PI Planning – Is a cadence-based, face-to-face planning event that serves as the heartbeat of the ART, aligning all the teams on the ART to the shared mission.
  • System Demo – Provides an integrated view of new features from the most recent iteration delivered by all the teams in the ART. Each demo provides ART stakeholders with an objective measure of progress during a PI.
  • Inspect & Adapt – Is a significant event where the current state of the solution is demoed and evaluated. Teams then reflect and identify improvement backlog items via a structured problem-solving workshop.
  • Scrum of Scrums – Helps coordinate the dependencies of the ARTs and provides visibility into progress and impediments
  • Product Owner (PO) Sync – Provides visibility into how well the ART is progressing toward meeting the program PI objectives, to discuss problems or opportunities with feature development, and to assess any scope adjustments.
  • ART Sync – Combines the ARTs Scrum of Scrums and PO Sync into a single event.

Team Events

  • Iteration Planning – Is an event in which an Agile team determines the Iteration Goals and how much of the team backlog they can commit to during an upcoming iteration. Team capacity determines the number of stories and enablers that are selected.
  • Iteration Execution – Is how the Agile team develops an increment of a high-quality, working, tested system within the timebox.
  • Iteration Review – Is a cadence-based event at the end of each iteration in which the team reviews the previous increment’s results and adjusts the team backlog based on feedback.
  • Iteration Retrospective – This is an event held at the end of the iteration for the Agile team to review its practices and identify ways to improve. The retrospective is based on the qualitative and quantitative information presented during the iteration review.
  • Backlog refinement – Is an event held once or twice during the iteration to refine, review, and estimate future stories and enablers in the team backlog.


The following Essential SAFe items help coordinate the ART and its teams:

ART artifacts

  • Features – Features are services that fulfill stakeholder’s needs. Each includes a name, benefits hypothesis, and acceptance criteria. They are sized to fit within a PI.
  • Enabler Features – Enabler features support the activities needed to extend the Architectural Runway to provide future business functionality and include exploration, architecture, infrastructure, and compliance.
  • Program Epics – Program epics are epics that a single ART can deliver.
  • Program PI Objectives – Program PI objectives describe the specific business and technical goals the ART intends to achieve in the upcoming PI.
  • Program Backlog – This is a holding area for upcoming Features, which are intended to address user needs and deliver business benefits for a single Agile Release Train (ART). It also contains the enabler features necessary to build the Architectural Runway.
  • Program Kanban – Manages the flow of features and enablers through the Continuous Delivery Pipeline.
  • Vision– This is a description of the future state of the solutions under development. It reflects the customer and stakeholder needs as well as the features proposed to meet them.
  • Roadmap – This is a schedule of events and milestones that communicate planned deliverables for a solution over a planning horizon.
  • Architectural Runway – Consists of the existing code, components, and technical infrastructure necessary to support the implementation of prioritized, near-term features, without excessive redesign and delay.
  • Solution – Solution is the product, service, or system ARTs deliver to the customers, whether internal or external to the enterprise.
  • Solution Context – Solution Context describes how the system will interface and be packaged and deployed in its operating environment.
  • System Team – Is a specialized Agile Team that assists in building and supporting the Agile development environment, typically including the developing and maintaining the toolchain that supports the Continuous Delivery Pipeline.

Team artifacts

  • Stories – Are the vehicle that carries customer requirements through the Value Stream into implementation. The teams use stories to deliver value within an iteration, and the Product Owner has content authority over their creation and acceptance.
  • Enabler stories – Provide the exploration, infrastructure, architecture, or compliance groundwork needed by another story or feature.
  • Team PI objectives – Are a summarized description of the specific business and technical goals that an Agile team intends to achieve in the upcoming PI.
  • Iteration goals – Are an output of the iteration planning event and provide a high-level summary of the business and technical goals that the team agrees to accomplish in the upcoming iteration. They help ensure alignment with the PI Objectives.
  • Team backlog – Consists of user and enabler stories; most stories are identified during PI planning and backlog refinement events.

Ten Critical ART Success Factors

SAFe has proven to scale in all situations, from complex software and systems development to bond trading and medical devices to memory chips and fighter aircraft. But, with such a robust framework, the question becomes: how closely does an organization need to follow various SAFe practices to get the desired result?

Also, when diagnosing SAFe implementation problems, it sometimes becomes apparent that enterprises may have skipped or stopped performing some of these critical practices.

To support these challenges, the following Ten Critical ART Success Factors (Figure 2) are a subset of Essential SAFe that describes the minimal SAFe elements necessary for success.

Figure 2. Ten Critical ART Success Factors

#1 – Lean-Agile Principles

SAFe practices are grounded in fundamental Lean-Agile Principles. As organizations adopt SAFe, their continuous improvement activities find even better ways of working.  These principles guide those improvement efforts and ensure the adjustments are moving on a continuous path to the ‘shortest sustainable lead time, with the best quality and value to people and society.’

#2 – Real Agile Teams and Trains

Real Agile Teams and ARTs are fully cross-functional. They have everything, and everyone, necessary to produce a working, tested increment of the solution. They are self-organizing and self-managing, which enables value to flow more quickly, with a minimum of overhead. Agile teams that cannot define, build, and test their work are not true Agile teams. ARTs that cannot deliver solutions or part of them are not true ARTs.

#3 – Cadence and Synchronization

Cadence provides a rhythmic pattern, which offers a steady heartbeat for the development process. It makes routine those things that can be routine. Synchronization allows multiple perspectives to be understood and resolved at the same time. For example, synchronization is used to pull the various assets of a system together to assess solution-level viability.

#4 – PI Planning

No event is more powerful in SAFe than Program Increment (PI) planning. It provides the rhythm for the ART and connects strategy to execution by ensuring business and technology alignment. Aligning the entire ART on a common vision and goal creates substantial energy and a shared sense of purpose.

#5 – Customer Centricity, DevOps and Release on Demand

SAFe enterprises create a positive customer experience across their full set of products and services.  They adopt a DevOps mindset, culture, and applicable technical practices to enable more frequent and higher-quality releases as the market demands.  These practices provide faster validation of hypotheses and produce greater profits, increased employee engagement, and more satisfied customers

#6 – System Demo

The primary measure of the ART’s progress is the objective evidence provided by a working solution in the System Demo. Every two weeks, the full system— the integrated work of all teams on the train for that iteration—is demoed to the train’s stakeholders. Stakeholders provide the feedback the train needs to stay on course and take corrective action.  This replaces other forms of governance that create additional work and slow flow.

#7 – Inspect and Adapt

Inspect and Adapt is a significant event held every PI. It is a regular time to reflect, collect data, and solve problems. The inspect and adapt event assembles teams and stakeholders to assess the solution and define improvements and actions needed to increase the velocity, quality, and reliability of the next PI.

#8 – IP Iteration

The Innovation and Planning Iteration occurs every PI and serves multiple purposes. It acts as an estimating buffer for meeting PI objectives, and provides dedicated time for innovation, continuing education, PI Planning, and Inspect and Adapt.  IP Iteration activities realize many Lean-Agile principles that enable business agility.

#9 – Architectural Runway

Architectural Runway consists of the existing code, components, and technical infrastructure necessary to support the implementation of high priority, near-term features, without excessive delay and redesign. Insufficient investment in the architectural runway slows the train and makes the ART’s delivery less predictable.

#10 – Lean-Agile Leadership

For SAFe to be effective, the enterprise’s leaders and managers must take responsibility for Lean-Agile adoption and success. Executives and managers must become Lean-Agile leaders who are trained—and then become trainers in—these leaner ways of thinking and operating. Without leadership taking responsibility for the implementation, the transformation will likely fail to achieve the full benefits.

Learn More

[1] Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Addison-Wesley, 2011.


Last update: 21  July 2021.