Kanban and SAFe®: BFFs? Exploring Kanban, Scaling, and Lean-Agile Frameworks

By: Andy Cleff | Sep 26, 2023 |  Kanban,  Lean,  SAFe

Image of Kanban and SAFe intertwined on a board.

I recently had the opportunity to listen in during a LinkedIn/YouTube Live conversation between my fellow AV Transformation Coach Colleen Johnson and Roger Turnau, both seasoned Lean-Agile practitioners. Their discussion touched on various facets of Lean-Agile coaching methodologies, including visualizing working on Kanban boards and the challenges of scaling Agile in larger organizations. 

As they discussed the frameworks and their respective principles, one intriguing question emerged in my mind: “Could Kanban and SAFe® actually be BFFs?”

Unpacking the World of Kanban

Colleen and Roger’s conversation kicked off with a deep dive into the realm of Kanban, a Lean-Agile methodology known for its focus on visualizing work, limiting work in progress (WIP), and optimizing flow. They provided valuable insights into how Kanban principles can be a game-changer, allowing teams and organizations to enhance their processes to leverage flow metrics for greater predictability.

One particularly noteworthy takeaway was the power of visualizing work on Kanban boards. This practice serves as a cornerstone for teams, enabling them to…

  • Comprehensively understand their workflow
  • Pinpoint bottlenecks
  • Make informed decisions to boost efficiency 

Colleen and Roger underlined the significance of simplicity and transparency, illustrating how Kanban’s principles can be applied across various domains, extending far beyond software development.

Scaling Agile: Challenges and Opportunities

The conversation then explored Agile scaling methodologies in the context of larger organizations. Such endeavors are complex journeys, rife with challenges and opportunities. Colleen and Roger gave special attention to the context of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®). They dissected the delicate balance between upholding Agile values and adhering to SAFe®’s structure.

One of the key challenges highlighted was the tendency for organizations to prioritize rigid process adherence over Agile’s core principles as noted in the Agile Manifesto. Roger articulated the need to recognize that Agile frameworks should function as tools for enhancing agility, rather than inflexible mandates (or madness). This underscored the importance of organizations adapting and customizing their approaches to align with their unique contexts.

A Magic Wand Moment

Image of a fantasy world. Meant to complement what the article is saying about a "magic wand moment" about Kanban and SAFeThe discussion took an imaginative turn via a whimsical question from the audience: “If you could wave a magic wand, what is one thing you would change or improve in your approach to Lean-Agile practices?” 

Roger shared his aspiration to forge a partnership between Kanban and SAFe®, emphasizing the transformative potential of flow metrics in elevating predictability and efficiency. (Maybe a first date? Please swipe right….)

Colleen had a different wish: eliminate time boxes in Agile practices, which she believed could sometimes inadvertently encourage a “push” mentality, instead of fostering a more flexible “pull” approach. This sparked a compelling dialogue around the alternative concept of Service Level Expectations (SLEs) as a means of replacing rigid time boxes.

Navigating Epic, Feature, and Story Structures (in SAFe®)

The final segment addressed an intriguing audience question regarding the challenges associated with navigating the epic-feature-story structure, particularly when definitions become muddled. Roger and Colleen shared their perspectives on the clarity and alignment that this structure can offer within the SAFe® framework. They also discussed the critical importance of breaking down features into independently valuable components, enabling faster feedback and a more Agile approach to delivery.

Key Takeaways

Three gems from Colleen and Roger’s discussion:

  • Visualize and Conquer: Kanban’s emphasis on visualizing work is a powerful tool for understanding, optimizing, and simplifying complex workflows.
  • Scaling Wisdom: Scaling Agile frameworks necessitates striking a balance between process adherence and the preservation of Agile values, with adaptability being a vital ingredient.
  • The Magic of Improvement: Reflecting on how to enhance Lean-Agile practices can lead to innovative solutions and a commitment to continuous improvement.

If you haven’t yet, listen to their insightful conversation that underscores the importance of curiosity, adaptability, and continuous improvement within the Lean-Agile coaching community. 

Engaging in dialogues like these and remaining receptive to fresh ideas empowers coaches to refine their practices and help organizations cultivate and sustain business agility. If you’re interested in exploring Kanban and SAFe® (individually or as a complement to each other) to help your organization get faster and more predictable, reach out with your questions or to have a quick conversation


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