The Metaphor Soup Blender Train March 10th, 2017
Patrick Stein

I had two days of SAFe training this week. SAFe stands for Scaled Agile Framework. Its goal is to take Agile software practices and use them in a big program, big product, big system scenario.

The training itself went well. It was 10,000 times better than the training that I had 25 years ago on the Carnegie Mellon Capability Maturity Model. The instructor knew his stuff and wasn’t afraid to weigh in on the good/bad of how SAFe has been rolled out in our program.

But, I gotta say, the Capability Maturity Model took five vague concepts and enshrined them into a mythical religion. SAFe, on the other hand, took a whole slew of disparate imagery and jammed them all together in some of the most crowded, grindingly-bad metaphoric combinations I can imagine.

Starting with Agile

As it starts with Agile, SAFe is already on shaky metaphoric ground. In Agile practice, one breaks up the work into User Stories. If a particular story is super-broad and long, then it is called an Epic. So far, so good, eh? But, stories are fairly static and we’re trying to be Agile. So, we take a group of stories and put them together into the work we’re going to do for the next two weeks and we call it, an Anthology?, an Issue?, a Serial?, no… we call it a Sprint. Because there is nothing like running with a good book to boost productivity.

And, I should mention that some User Stories are more complicated than others. So, each User Story has a number of Points assigned to it, usually through Planning Poker. We use a gambling metaphor to come to a team consensus on the number of Points each Story is worth.

Are you following me? Good.

Okay, so, in Agile, too, we want to break down the barriers between those who design and those who code and those who test. How does our team do this? We Scrum. Scrum is term from the sport of Rugby. A scrum, in Rugby, is a big crowd of players from both teams, fighting over the ball in a mob, trying
to push it down the field to their team’s advantage. In Agile, we are all on the same team, so I’m not sure why we’re fighting over the ball. And, I’m not sure how this is helping us Sprint our User Stories. But, that’s what we do.

Really though, for some reason, we use the word Scrum to mean a quick daily meeting to update everyone on what we’re working on and raise anything that is blocking us. Cuz, that’s nothing like a Rugby scrum. And, we use the term Swarm to refer to those times when our whole team is focused on a singular goal to push it through, or when other teams dive in to help our team with a singular goal.

So, in order to finish our User Stories in a Sprint, we Scrum every day and occasionally Swarm.

And, like every good Sprint, the next Sprint starts immediately after the last one ends.

The last thing you do in a Sprint is demo what you accomplished in the Sprint. You know, like in a foot race, where you finish the race and then show everyone how you just finished the race. And, then, you have a Readout of what you’ve done. And, you start the next sprint with a Readout of what you’re going to do the next Sprint. Because, it wasn’t scientific enough to have just finished your Stories in your Sprint, you need an old piece of galvanized steel equipment to spit out a small paper tape with the total on it.

All Aboard

So, how do you take something organized around Sprints full of Stories by a Scrum team who can Swarm and make it scale to something big?

Well, you start by adding trains. You add multiple, ARTs (Agile Release Trains). These trains each have multiple Scrum teams Scrumming and Swarming on Stories.

But, now, we need some stuff in between Epics and User Stories. Are we going to stick with writing metaphors? Of course not. We’re going to make Epics broken up into multiple Capabilities and Capabilities broken up into multiple Features and those Features get broken up into User Stories.

Oh, we need to know where the Agile Release Trains are heading, right? So, we will have a Roadmap and a Vision which will be the Guardrails for our train. And, the train, itself, will be following a Value Stream with Milestones. So, your train doesn’t run on train tracks. It runs on a stream. It does this so it can Pivot if needed. But, it is okay, because there are guardrails and a roadmap.

The train provides Transparency. Your train full of scrums on a stream with a roadmap is transparent.

There is, of course, also a Product Manager or Product Owner who steers the train. We also have Release Train Engineers. They don’t get to steer though. They only get to drive the train straight along the stream.

Are We Flying Yet?

So, in Software Development, there are tons of small decisions that we make each day that, together, form the Architecture of our application. Most big projects have dedicated Software Architects who are responsible for keeping the Architecture coherent.

You may rightly be thinking that this whole bevy of Scrum Teams piled on our Agile Release Trains with their heads focused on the User Stories in their own Sprints might not be the best thing for the overall Architecture. But, that’s okay, because running along the Value Stream there is also an Architectural Runway. I’m not 100% sure if this is so that our product can fly (or land?) or so that our product can sell its new line of shoes in Milan. But, we’ve got a Runway.

The Crooked House

At some point, someone decided that SAFe needed Lean. So, they added it in, too. In fact, they have what is called the SAFe House of Lean. Now, I am quite glad that my house house does not lean.

The foundation of the SAFe House of Lean is Leadership. The roof is Value. The pillars are: Respect for people and culture, Flow, Innovation, and Relentless Improvement. We’ve now built a house out of abstract concepts. I’m not sure where it sits compared to our Stream or our Runway or our Train or our Sprint, but it makes for a hell of a User Story.