Implementing SAFe with Jira (part 3)

In part 2 we have looked at estimating and planning of a release of the Agile Release Train. This is mainly on SAFe portfolio and program level. In this part, I will focus more on the challenges of estimating and planning on program and team level. Since Jira does not offer much cross-project support, we will be using the structure plugin. So first, we must get our structure boards right.

Structure plugin (revisited)

Last time, I explained that you can make a structure board with the structure plugin, and populate and locate issues on the structure board with synchronizers, in particular:

  • Filter synchronizer – use a filter query
  • Agile synchronizer (JIRA Agile (Greenhopper) – using Epic links and Subtasks
  • Links synchronizer (Issue Links synchronizer) – using “Implement” links

The filter synchronizer can be configured to remove issues that are outside the filter query results. For example, if you filter on ‘project = PSYS AND status != Closed’ the filter synchronizer removes issues when they are put in Closed status. But, it will also remove issues for other projects than PSYS. And given that the links synchronizer will typically add issues from other Jira projects (e.g. the portfolio project or product development projects), a resync of the filter synchronizer will remove issues added by the links synchronizer. We don’t want that!

My first instinct was to configure the filter synchronizer not to remove issues, only add them. That way, issues added by the agile and links synchronizers remain on the structure board. It worked at first, but then issues of the product teams started popping up on the system structure board. And obviously, they were not removed. So, why did they pop up and how do I get rid of them?

They popped up by “clone and move”. Suppose we want to clone a system epic on program level to a product epic for a particular project on team level. Step 1 is to clone the system epic. The result is that 2 identical system epics are on the system structure board. Step 2 is move the (cloned) system epic to the product project. Jira actually renames the issue id (key). The structure plugin shows the renamed issue id on the structure board because the filter synchronizer is not configured to remove it. So, now the question is, how to get rid of it on the structure board.

  • Manual way 1: select the issue and press the ‘x’ button on the structure board.
  • Manual way 2: select all issues and press the ‘x’ button on the structure board, which makes the board empty. Then resync the filter synchronizer and then the agile and links synchronizers to add, sort and locate issues on the structure board
  • Automatic way: extend the filter of the filter synchronizer and configure it to remove issues you don’t want

In Jira it is not possible to define a query to find all issues that the Agile and Links synchronizers add. The query language (JQL) is just too limited for that. But the structure plugin does add the function structure(<structure>,<query>) to find issues on a structure board. Now if the filter synchronizer adds PSYS issues and the agile and links synchronizers only add sub-issues underneath, the top issues are always PSYS issues. For any top that is not of the PSYS project should be removed. Result:

project = PSYS OR structure(“System structure”,”ancestor in [project = PSYS]”)

In English: all PSYS issues and all sub-issues on the structure board underneath a PSYS issue. If you want multiple projects on the structure board you can use project in (PSYSA,PSYSB,PSYSC) instead.

Jira boards for SAFe

Let’s have a look back: what boards do we have for SAFe implementation in Jira?

  • Portfolio level
    • Portfolio Kanban board – manage the workflow of the portfolio backlog items
    • Portfolio Structure board – visualize the hierarchy from portfolio to products
  • Program level
    • System Kanban board – manage the workflow of the system backlog items
    • System Structure board – visualize the hierarchy from system to products
  • Team level
    • Product Scrum board – manage the workflow in sprints of product backlog items
    • Product Structure board – visualize the hierarchy from product to portfolio

On the portfolio structure board and the system structure board, it is only a downwards hierarchy to the product. On the product structure boards, it is an upward hierarchy to the portfolio, which requires a different filter for the synchronizer:

project = PRDA OR structure(“Product A structure”,”descendantsOrIssue in [project = PRDA]”)

Of course the links synchronizer needs to be configured differently to locate issues in an upwards hierarchy, i.e. adding parents instead of sub-issues.


Orphans are backlog items on the system or product backlog that are not related directly or indirectly to an item on the portfolio backlog. Portfolio backlog items represent value to the business. Since an orphan is not related to a portfolio item, it does not add value to the business and therefore working on an orphan is wasted effort. Of course, if links are missing they may seem like orphans but they are not.

To be able to eliminate waste (which is a Lean principle), we strive for linking all backlog items, to a portfolio backlog item. This includes defects; more on defects later. For example, a story (on team/product level) may be linked to an product epic (through an epic link), which is linked to a product epic of another team (through a “implement” link), which is linked to a system epic (through a “implement” link) which is linked to a business epic (through a “implement” link) on the portfolio backlog. So working on the story adds value to the portfolio backlog item and thus it is not waste.

Finding orphans is quite simple: all backlog items without an ancestor (i.e. parent, grandparent, …) on portfolio level is an orphan. As a query, assuming PBUS is the portfolio project in Jira:

structure(“Product A structure”,”ancestorOrIssue not in [project = PBUS]”)

Estimating and planning

Now that we have structure boards cleaned up of orphans, we can finally start estimating. One of the nice things about the structure plugin is that it can accumulate estimates: original estimate, remaining estimate and logged work. For each estimate it shows 2 numbers: excluding and including the estimate of the underlying item. So when the structure hierarchy is complete, you can nicely see the total of original estimate, remaining estimate and logged work, assuming the numbers are filled in right.

However, in practice the hierarchy is never complete. There are portfolio items which have not yet been refined into system items, and there are system items not yet refined or partially refined into product items. Here is the dilemma:

  • Complete the hierarchy before estimating a portfolio item
  • Estimate the portfolio item before completing the hierarchy

Completing the hierarchy takes a lot of time and effort. You need to do an impact analysis and technical (architectural) decision to decide the affected system and product parts. You should do that only for backlog items early on the roadmap. However, if you estimate before making the hierarchy complete, the estimate may be unreliable. So what to do?

Simple answer: estimates on any level (portfolio, program or team level) should take into account the velocity at that level only. The story point estimate is a size estimate for a backlog item relative to other backlog items on the same level. Don’t take underlying estimates or velocities into account! Based on the (recent) past, calculate the velocity (story points per time unit). For the upcoming iteration (e.g. program increment on program level, or sprint on team level), set the planned velocity equal to the velocity of the last iteration. Then adjust:

  • If the velocity over the past iterations shows a trend (e.g. increasing), adjust the planned velocity in the extrapolated direction
  • If there is a significant change in the development staffing (e.g. new people,  reduction, outsourcing), technology (e.g. new platform, new OS, new protocols) or another factor that may affect the velocity, estimate the impact on the velocity and adjust the planned velocity accordingly
  • If there are temporary circumstances (e.g. holidays, absence of key people), estimate the impact on the velocity for backlog items high on the backlog and adjust the planned velocity accordingly. Consider delaying the backlog items that are hampered by the temporary circumstances

With a planned velocity and story point estimates (on portfolio, program or team level), you can determine how may of the (top) backlog items you can plan for the next iteration.

Why do you need the hierarchical structure anyway? You don’t need it for estimation! You do need it for planning. On team/product level, the sorting order of the product backlogs should satisfy the sorting order on program/system level. And on program/system level the sorting order of the system backlog should satisfy the sorting order on portfolio level.

The backlog hierarchy also allows cross-checking the sanity of the estimates for velocity and story points. For example, if the program velocity is planned to be reduced by 10% due to holidays but actually the average team velocity drops by 30% during the holidays, you know that you should increase the expected velocity drop for the next holiday season. Similarly, if a backlog item is 2x the size of another backlog item on program level, but the underlying product backlog items are 4x the size, you need to analyze which type of backlog items are over or underestimated and adjust the estimates accordingly.


In part 1 and part 2, we discussed the 3-layered structure and how the structure plugin supports it. In part 3 (this part), we discussed orphans in the structure and estimating and planning across the portfolio, program and team levels. Important to remember is that story point estimations and velocity planning is independent from the hierarchy. The hierarchy is merely used to assure the consistency between the portfolio, program and team level in sorting order (planning), story points (estimating) and velocity (planning). I am not sure yet about part 4, so if you have ideas of subjects you would find interesting, feel free to let me know.

About Frank Schophuizen (fschop)

Hi, my name is Frank Schophuizen and I am working as a consultant in CM, Agile and ALM for TOPIC Embedded Systems. I have over 30 years experience in software development in the technology industry, with the last 15 years mainly in process improvement, deployment and integration of methods and tools in the area of Agile (SAFe, Scrum), CM and ALM. I am strongly interested in the complexities of collaboration and integration in multi-project and multi-site organizations. I have worked with various technology companies such as Philips, ASML, NXP and Vanderlande, and with various tool vendors such as Atlassian (e.g. Jira, Confluence),IBM Rational (e.g. ClearCase, Synergy, Jazz products) as well as open source tools (e.g. SVN, Git, Jenkins, Trac, Eclipse). I am living in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, with my wife. We have 3 adult children. My main hobbies are classical music and photography.
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11 Responses to Implementing SAFe with Jira (part 3)

  1. Arnaud says:

    Thank you for your great article. I just want to know if you tried BigPicture plugin instead of structure plugin ( ? What do you think about ?


  2. Yanfeng Zhang says:

    Thanks for your great post!
    My company is planning to deploy JIRA and SAFe in this quarter and we’re doing a lot of research on how to make it work. Fortunately I found this post. I must say that this is the most practical guideline on this topic(JIRA and SAFe) I’ve read.


  3. Juan Carlos Romero says:

    Hello Frank, just wanted to say thanks by sharing your experience on how use Jira in support of SAFe, the way you described the implementation in this 3 parts blogs simplified a lot the complexity and challenge, also it made me to think about/reconsider several concepts, your blogs responded several why’s? and how´s?, excellent job !!!.


  4. Reblogged this on .


  5. Saravanan says:

    Hello Frank

    Frankly speaking, I went through a lot of postings about SAFe configuration in JIRA but found that yours was the closest match to what I was looking for. It is simple, realistic and configurable with a few additional plug ins. I am not sure of the problems that I might face during the implementation, but then we can always learn. I am just curious when you said Portfolio (business) epics also has stories. My understanding is stories created at a product level are implemented by the scrum teams. So who will be responsible for implementing the business epics linked stories? Pardon me if my question is too naive.


    Liked by 1 person

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