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5 Use Cases for an Agile Release Tram (aka Small Scale SAFe)

Em Campbell-Pretty
Aug 31, 2023

What is an Agile Release Tram? Well, that is a great question. It sounds a bit like Agile Release Train; however, there are no references to it in the Scaled Agile Framework. While I’m sure we are not the only people who have Agile Release Trams, this is a pattern we have been using since 2015 or 2016.

In simple terms, it is an Agile Release Train (as per SAFe) that is smaller than the recommended minimum size of five teams and 50 people. We call them baby ARTs or trams. (We are from Melbourne, Australia, home to the world’s largest operational tram network. In other jurisdictions, trams are referred to as trolleys, streetcars, or light rail. In essence, a rail-based transportation system that is smaller than a train.)

Why would anyone want an Agile Release Tram?

SAFe defines an Agile Release Train as a virtual organisation of 5 to 12 teams (50 to 125 team members); however, not every organisation with an interest in SAFe meets this minimum threshold of 5 teams or 50 people. From our perspective, if the organisation sees value in leveraging SAFe, who are we to argue?

How Small is Too Small for SAFe?

Instinctively, a train (or tram) with only one or two agile teams feels like it is too small for SAFe. Our smallest Agile Release Tram was two teams (see Use Case 2 below), and perhaps it is the exception that proves the rule. In its second PI it became a three-team tram, and more growth is planned. When considering a small ART or tram, you need to consider the context. We see five use cases in which launching a tram (rather than a train) might be valuable for an organisation.

Use Case 1 – We don’t have five Agile teams

The first time this came up, we were approached by an organisation that wanted to launch an Agile Release Train but only had three teams. I paused for a moment and considered, was supporting this organisation in launching such a small train the right thing to do?

The pragmatist in me recalled something Dean Leffingwell said when Solution Intent was added to SAFe: “We can either tell people that need to provide requirements traceability for compliance purposes that they can’t be Agile, or we can give them an Agile way to be compliant. We are choosing to give them an Agile way to be compliant.” Following the same logic, I extrapolated that we can either tell people with less than five teams that they can’t use SAFe or we can find a safe way for them to use SAFe. Pun intended!

While this use case often results in trams of less than 50 people, there are usually more than three teams once we “right-sized” the agile teams to less than ten people per team. It is not clear to us if a five or six-team ART with a common mission but with less than 50 people is a train or a tram; however, we find having the tram “configuration” option in our toolbox provides the opportunity for deeper discussions that lead to successful SAFe implementations. More than once, a baby ART launch has inspired an organisation to continue to invest in SAFe and launch more trains or trams.

Use Case 2 – I have been burnt before, so I want to start small

Sometimes, a leader is just not willing to “bet the house” on SAFe. This seems to be more common when they have had a poor experience in the past. Being able to offer a tram (or, in one case, a two-team tram we called a minibus) provides a mechanism for the organisation to run a small experiment.

For this to be effective, it needs to be a minimal viable train. You will need the key ART Roles (Release Train Engineer, Product Manager and System Architect), a proper ART Launch (we recommend the quick start approach) and all the standard cadence-based SAFe events. It is important not to cut corners as this can lead to the experiment failing or being unable to scale as confidence grows.  

The Agile Release Tram will also need clear scope boundaries so there is never any debate about what sort of work the tram does and does not do. When in time you grow this ART, you will need to extend the scope of the tram or train accordingly. You should also be sure to provide the new teams with the same onboarding experience as the initial teams.

Use Case 3 – We don’t have enough people for an ART right now, but we plan to grow

In this use case, the organisation plans to grow from an initial two or three teams to enough teams and people for a full-grown ART. These organisations often already have teams using Agile practices but feel they will need more structure as they start to add teams and people to the organisation. Unlike the previous use case, the ART scope usually remains static, but its capacity to deliver increases over time as people and teams are added. Moving the organisation to SAFe using the Agile Release Tram pattern as a starting point enables the organisation to start in the vein in which it intends to continue.

In this scenario, we need to be very disciplined about how we shape the teams and how we then grow the train. We recommend starting with the smallest viable team you can form. To be viable, the team needs to have enough of the skills necessary to deliver an outcome and enough redundancy to still function when a team member is on leave. Then, as you hire more people, add them to these teams. This results in the new team members being supported by a team with existing knowledge of the organisation when they first join.

Over time, the teams will reach the maximum recommended team size of nine or ten. This provides the catalyst to form a new team. You can rinse and repeat this process until the ART reaches the desired size. (For the back story on this growth pattern, check out our blog: How to Grow an Agile Release Train.)

Use Case 4 – Some of our value streams have less than five teams

The fourth scenario occurs in smaller organisations, where there are plenty of teams, but when they are mapped to value streams, some value streams have less than five teams.  While it is possible to have multiple value streams on an ART, they must be related.  Forcing teams onto a multi-value stream ART, where there are no interdependencies, tends to make teams miserable. Many ART events lose their value when the teams don’t have a need to collaborate. In this scenario, we find multiple value-stream-aligned trams provide the organisation with a better outcome, greater transparency and clarity of purpose.

Use Case 5 – We have a couple of teams left that aren’t on the ART(s)

The fifth use case is when an organisation has successful ART(s), and there are some stand-alone teams that aren’t part of an ART.  Launching a tram (or even a minibus) provides a mechanism for these teams to work in the same way and on the same cadence as the Agile Release Trains. While their tram is separate from the ARTs, this approach creates a sense of inclusivity that improves employee engagement for those that would have otherwise been excluded. By way of example, we worked with a software company that used an ART to deliver its primary product suite.  The internal IT teams formed a three-team tram to improve alignment with the core product teams.

If I have an Agile Release Tram, am I still doing SAFe?

In our view, the Agile Release Tram is a configuration of Essential SAFe, and all ten critical success factors apply to trams. To quote Simon Sinek, “Frameworks allow for creativity.” Trams extend the power of shared language, common ways of working and synchronised cadences beyond the Agile Release Train. We have found trams to be useful time and time again, and so far, we have seen the same sorts of results you would expect from an Agile Release Train – improvements in employee engagement, time to market, productivity, quality and predictability. In our experience, the Agile Release Tram is a proven pattern for helping organisations get started with or extend SAFe implementations.

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