Establishing The First Agile Release Train: A Definitive Guide

Agile Release Train
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Scaled Agile Framework – SAFe is one of the most trusted set of principles, practices and structures companies adopt to scale their agile practices at an organization or enterprise level. Companies adopt SAFe with a purpose of achieving their goals hand in hand reaping the benefits of business itself being agile. 

SAFe recommends structuring teams and delivery around value streams that usually align themselves around a common shared goal, technology. And the heartbeat of structuring a set of agile teams who can plan, commit and deliver value incrementally over a cadence is nothing but an Agile Release Train. Establishing agile release train is a vital part of your SAFe implementation and  could eventually make or break your transformation. 

If you have decided to implement SAFe and want to learn a few aspects in establishing the first agile release train, you have landed on the right page. This blog aims at covering the following high level topics.

  • What is an Agile release train?
  • What are the Agile release train launch readiness?
  • What are the roles in an ART? 
  • What are the steps involved in launching the first Agile release train?

What Are Agile Release Trains?

Agile Release Train (ART) is a set of agile teams with shared/common goals who can plan, commit and deliver an increment to a solution/product over a cadence. ARTs are cross functional mini organizations usually consisting of around 50 to 125 people. They usually have all the expertise needed to plan, develop, test and deploy the commitments towards one or multiple solutions or products. 

But what can be the structure of an ART or how do we envisage an ART structure? Well SAFe recommends a few topologies for a better structured ARTs and they are:

  • Stream Aligned Teams – Usually the teams who have the capabilities who can perform all steps to deliver an end to end experience 
  • Complicated SubSystems Teams – Teams with specialized technical expertise who can help ART in a particular area of need
  • Common Platform Teams – Teams who can be specific to all the services and APIs usually catering to a platform 
  • Enabling Teams –  Teams who can take care of the tools, licenses etc for the agile teams

Now there are a few aspects which one needs to be aware of before launching Agile release train (steps for releasing first Agile train) and they are 

  • ART’s primary goal is to cater to the customer needs. Hence it becomes important to apply customer centricity techniques like Design thinking etc to relate to customer problems 
  • ARTs Plan the work in a cadence called as Program Interval and must be aligned with the strategic goals 
  • Have enough maturity and systems to build small increments, deliver continuously and deploy them
  • Aligned towards keeping the customer close even during the development phase to get constant feedback 
  • Closely Inspect the metrics, understand the gaps in process and people and improve based on the needs

Roadmap to Launch Agile Release Train

SAFe suggests a roadmap for it’s implementation across an organization and the journey looks like the picture below.

It all starts with a need for the implementation within the organization, which could be the need to stay relevant in the market, cater to change in market environment, leadership pressure etc. There are 4 major aspects to be taken care of as far as first agile release train launch readiness is concerned as per Scaled Agile and they are:

Awareness and Trainings

The building block of any transformation journey is to bring in the awareness within the unit of transformation. Why are we doing what we are doing? What are the benefits? What is the framework? How is it going to help the organization etc. There are various levels of stakeholders involved in the transformation and it is only fair to train everyone on SAFe.

  1. Training SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs)

The change agents/practitioners who will be driving the change. These change agents are responsible for the implementation, training, coaching and certifying leadership team, product team, agile teams. 

They will have to take a 4 day course which prepares them to become a certified SPC and will learn the principles, apply practices, organize the ARTs and once they are certified they are now officially good to implement SAFe in the organization.

  1. Create Lean Agile Center of Excellence 

A group of agile practitioners/enthusiasts dedicated to implementing SAFe within the organization. Their responsibilities include:

  • Training and coaching leadership teams
  • Facilitation of the transformation
  • Coaching the teams on lean agile ways of working 
  1. Train Lean Agile Leaders

Executives, managers and leadership team’s buy-in is a crucial part of the transformation. It is essential for them to understand SAFe principles, practices and play a critical role in the adoption. SPCs can train the leadership teams with Leading SAFe- SAFe agilist certification which is a 2 day course followed by certification exam. 

Organizational Readiness

Before establishing first Agile Release Train, it is important to narrow down on the structure of people, teams, setting expectations with respect to roles and responsibilities, how many teams, who will be the POs and SMs etc. This section describes the steps involved in getting the things in place for Agile release train launch readiness.

  1. Do a Value Stream Workshop and Identify your FIRST Agile Release Train

SAFe is a framework which is modeled keeping lean agile in mind and the flow of value from the trigger point till the value is delivered. The steps taken from the need are triggered till the value is delivered is called a value stream. ARTs are formed to serve a value stream.

  • Identify organization’s operation value stream
  • Identify the solutions within the OVS
  • Identify the development value streams for the solutions 
  • Select the first DVS 
  • Identify the ARTs 
  • Select the first ART we want to launch
  1. Define/Setup the ART and Teams and Fill Important Roles

The next step is to define and structure the first ART. Who will be the business owners, which DVS does the ART belong to, What are the solutions which the ART will work on etc. There is a standard ART canvas which is recommended by SAFe and includes all above aspects. 

  1. Form Agile Teams and Fill Important Roles

The next step is to organize the agile teams within the ART. Teams can be formed by either initial suggestions by the management or by letting the teams form themselves. Create a team roster as shown below.

  1. Train The Teams & Set a Date for Launch
  • LACE can start training the agile teams on SAFe, Scrum and other agile aspects. There are courses like SAFe for teams provided by SAFe to bring the awareness within the team members as to the principles, practices, ceremonies and mindset so that the transformation is less chaotic and smooth
  • Identify the ART PI cadence 
  • Narrow down on the first PI planning date and send the invite. This creates a positive tension within the organizations and the team members
  • Send out invites for all PI planning events

Content Readiness – Prepare the ART Program Backlog

SPCs and LACE teams conduct series of refinement meetings with the PM, PO teams, stakeholders, business teams and the agile teams to narrow down on:

  • What to be built? 
  • What are the features that we will be building?
  • What are the NFRs / enablers which we will be working on?

PI planning is a 2-3 days event depending on virtual or in person setup. There are a series of activities which happen across these 2-3 days and it is important to be ready with the content needed. Critical pieces of content needed are:

  • Business context – Current business, way forward presented by the business owners
  • Product Vision and Program Backlog – Top 10 features of the product targeted for the PI by the product management team
  • Architectural Runway – Enablers and architecture vision for the PI presented by the system architects

Logistics Readiness

Launching the first ART is a very important step and keeping the blast radius minimum is essential. The entire ART participates in the PI planning and there are a lot of events within. Hence it becomes crucial to be prepared with the logistics as well. Some of them include:

  • Location – PI planning facility, Chairs, Laptops
  • Communication Channels – Audio and Video arrangements, tools 
  • Stationeries and collaboration materials

Conduct PI Planning – Launch Agile Release Train

A 2-3 days event where all the ART people come together to:

  • Understand the business context 
  • Align with Product and Architectural vision 
  • Plan their work across iterations 
  • Identify Risks 
  • Make changes according to business needs 
  • Get alignment with the business folks on the plan 
  • Get confidence votes 
  • Make a commitment to the plan made 

Execute the Program Increment

The realization of the plan made in the PI planning across the PI cadence. There is a continuous sense of inspect and adapt happening across the cadence and teams collaborate and communicate in several forums which include:

  • Frequent System Demos to get constant feedback 
  • Coach Sync to coordinate within the teams 
  • Product Sync to assess and adapt to any change in objectives 

Execute the Innovation and Planning (IP) Iteration

Innovation and planning is a one iteration duration which the ART can use for any undone work, plan some innovation activities like hackathon, bug bash etc and also come  together to conduct a grand demo of the system delta. It is also the time where qualitative and quantitative measures are inspected and gaps are identified to improve in the next PI. This is the end of the first PI for the first ART which is followed by the PI planning event for the next PI and the cycle continues.

Conclusion

Launching the first Agile Release Train needs a lot of buy-in/alignment from the leadership team, awareness of the framework and principles, team restructuring and agile release train launch readiness to avoid chaos. It might look overwhelming to get everything in place before the launch however, creating a success story resonates and the subsequent ART launches become a little more streamlined and simple. Once the first ART is launched, there are now reusable templates, leadership teams are now aware of how SAFe works and are trained as well, LACE teams are in place these benefits make the next ART launches less time consuming and easier.

We hope this blog on “Establishing the First Agile Train” has given you enough insights as to what it takes to get the excitement going and help you launch your first ART. Please reach out to us at “consult@benzne.com” for any support in your agile transformation journey! Have a SAFe one 🙂

FAQ Questions

Which 3 actions are needed to launch agile release train?

Identifying the Agile release Train, Identify who will set the business context , Decide the iteration and program increment duration are 3 of the most important actions amongst all the actions needed to launch an Agile release train.

How many people are needed for an agile release train?

An agile release train generally consists of 50 – 120 cross functional members.

Who facilitates the agile Release train?

Agile release train is a set of around 50-120 people who are cross functional and self managing. However, an RTE is the person who facilitates and serves to avoid chaos and ensure everything is in place.

What is one of the agile release train meetings?

PI planning is one of the main ART meetings where the entire ART  come together to,
👉 Understand the business context 
👉 Align with Product and Architectural vision 
👉 Plan their work across iterations 
👉 Identify Risks 
👉 Make changes according to business needs 
👉 Get alignment with the business folks on the plan 
👉 Get confidence votes 
👉 Make a commitment to the plan made

What is a release train engineer vs scrum master?

While both of the roles is towards serving the teams as a servant leader and coaching the teams, here are a few differences,
👉 Scrum master is a team level coach where are RTE is an ART level coach 
👉 Scrum masters report to the RTE while RTEs report to STE
👉 Scrum masters ensures team level agility and commitment is in tact while RTEs 👉 Ensure the ART level agility and commitment is in tact 
👉 Scrum master collaborates closely with the POS and Leads while the RTE
👉 Collaborates closely with PMs, System Architects and Business owners

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