What determines the success of Agile Release Trains?

In my experience it is the tolerance of organizations to embrace failures as opportunities for growth and learning, which hold equal or more weight than the successes that we also need to sustain. I have had the pleasure to be involved on numerous ART launches and implementations, all of which made continual improvement towards increasing predictability, alignment around value and customer centricity, and limiting WIP at both the Team and Program constructs.

In my first exposure to the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), many antipatterns were observed early in the process. Teams were burnt out and there was no time for innovation. One of the core causes of lack of time for innovation was that Value Stream Mapping was skipped early in the journey, which led to the organization of teams that had many dependencies, resulting in substantial delays in their ability to deliver quickly. Teams were overloaded simply because of so many continual items on hold from other external and even internal teams, additional work would be put on their plates because the belief that they had additional capacity. This resulted in a significant increase in WIP, even at the Feature construct, resulting in the lack of PI Objectives being realized in a timely manner. The teams solved this systemic problem by aligning their Agile teams around value, resulting in much fewer handoffs and dependencies.

Think of the five teams involved like a cheeseburger. They were organized around components of the overall stack (Team 1 was the burger, Team 2 was the cheese, etc.). Once the teams suggested to reorganize around vertical slices of work, those same dependencies were eliminated, and value was achieved much more quickly due to the teams aligning around Features

When we applied more formal Value Stream Mapping workshops, the overall organization of the system resulted in a hybrid of component and feature teams, allowing more stability and architectural guardrails to help align to the development value streams.

Another aspect of successful Agile Release Trains is simply fun! One of the feedback items that was popular in a PI Planning retrospective was lack of bacon. Our RTE not only ensured bacon was part of the next PI Planning breakfast menu but came fully dressed in a bacon costume as well! Another team had access to a cricket vinyl printer and could easily print branded templates and other visuals that displayed team logos and graphics around the room. If teams are having fun, it makes overcoming other roadblocks and risks all the easier.

When we introduce new ways for our teams to be longer lived, some of the ceremonies stood up could overlap with existing calendars that were already scheduled. By onboarding experienced coaches to assist with your implementation, you can eliminate the redundancy of these occurrences much more quickly, resulting in more time given back to the teams to perform the actual work. For example, often the town hall or all hands events (sometimes just days after the conclusion of a PI Planning event) might introduce a contradiction in the overall strategy desired of the Agile Release Train. This can be remedied by the introduction of Top of House OKRs that cascade the strategy and vision to the Agile Release Trains, increasing alignment of tactical delivery with strategic themes.

Self-assessment is a huge contributor to successful ARTs, especially when experienced coaches can help prevent the Dunning-Kruger effect. It is imperative for experienced coaches to help facilitate self-assessment events to maximize future opportunities and realize them more quickly. Scaled Agile provides many channels and collectors for teams to intake this information, but care must be taken to help prevent the teams from prematurely thinking that they have mastered their practice and be more open to adopting growth mindsets and having the cultural foundation to be able to effectively self-reflect without the fear of their career being in jeopardy or showing up negatively on a performance review.


The most successful ARTs focus early on maturing their DevOps and Technical acumen. Emerging methods such as ‘mobbing’, continuation of extreme programming techniques, and focus on flow continue to squash the need for long hours and heroics, which were a main staple in the IT world for decades. Teams are finding more and more ways to maintain their productivity while working remotely during the COVID pandemic.

But overall Team and Technical Agility is not enough to guarantee success. Ultimately, the foundation to help drive long lasting successful teams begins with leadership. My most recent engagement reached a career milestone that I have not seen through my 18+ year Lean-Agile career. The C-Suite not only took the time for multiple two-day training classes but prepared and passed the associated certification exams as well! This is a sign that leadership would like to invest energy in adopting Lean-Agile mindsets to help accelerate our journey, which will pave the foundation to enable our Agile teams to reach their desired outcomes but making time to be engaged in the community and have fun along the way.

The credit for the most successful Agile Release Trains is the people themselves. Once leadership can fully adopt the same Lean-Agile mindset that they would like their workforce to demonstrate, relentless improvement becomes the focal point for the organization to thrive. This accelerates the growth mindset needed to help build more redundancy into our organizations processes, and allows the knowledge workers the autonomy to experiment, while remaining aligned to the overall desired strategy that will continue to allow future successes.

About the Author: Todd Swift is a value-driven, customer-centric Lean Agile Transformation Coach and Technical Professional with over 18 years of Lean-Agile experience in software development and systems engineering. As a lifelong learner, he continues to demonstrate mastery of Agile frameworks and software methodologies and has served numerous Agile teams as a Scrum Master, Release Train Engineer, and Coach. He has partnered with energy, transportation, insurance, pharmaceutical, healthcare, government, manufacturing, and technology organizations, which has led to a variety of real-world experiences that customers can relate to. Todd became an SPC in 2018 and enjoys teaching and coaching individuals throughout the Lean Enterprise and the public. His lifelong dream is to teach SAFe courses in Latin America and Spain and increase awareness in Lean Agile frameworks to native Spanish speakers. In his spare time, Todd and his wife represent Subaru as Brand Ambassadors, educating the public on improving environmental practices and the benefits of Subaru ownership.