Manufacturer Mixes Waterfall and Agile in Jira

When companies experience growth spurts, the lack of proper processes really starts to hurt.

For South African extrusion equipment manufacturer CFAM, the old way of doing things involved a disparate mix of Excel spreadsheets, sticky notes, calendars on walls, and people walking around. It worked when the team was small, but as soon as their numbers started climbing, CFAM realized change was needed – fast.

So, CFAM worked with Heinich Graupner and Matogen Zebra, the custom development division of Matogen, to build a full-scale manufacturing system within Jira Cloud.

The key to the success of that system? Custom Charts for Jira.

Weekly Throughput Bar Chart in Custom Charts
A 2D stacked bar chart made with Custom Charts for Jira, showing weekly throughput for specific work areas

Company silos – good or bad?

CFAM started out managing everything on paper, with scattered structures and secluded systems. Team and department progress was unknown and timelines, tasks, and engineering data pack specifications were misleading. There were sticky notes, spreadsheets, printed approval documents, and computer-aided design drawings, but a lot of the required information was in people’s heads. Therefore, the ‘system’ relied on people walking around the manufacturing plant talking to each other. Over time, data silos abounded, with no one looking upstream or downstream at the impact of their work on other teams.

Data silos are often cited as the antithesis of digital transformation, but Heinrich Graupner, managing director at Matogen Zebra, argues that the silos themselves are not the problem.

Photo of CFAM Industrial Equipment

“Personally, I think companies need silos,” Heinrich says. “In the agricultural industry, you allocate silos for a certain grain type and you don’t mix them. Similarly, there’s no point throwing an expert in one thing into a department that’s doing another. And companies, I think, should create an environment that promotes the growth of experts.”

Instead, Heinrich says that the key is fostering a connection between the silos. “It’s not about breaking silos down,” he says. “It’s about getting the experts to talk to each other. And effective communication between departments such as Engineering, Procurement, and Manufacturing is what CFAM needed. If someone was out of office, everything would come to a halt. It was dangerous, being so reliant on individual knowledge that wasn’t being captured anywhere.”

Digitization and the cultivation of collective knowledge

CFAM realized they needed to digitize, but found that there aren’t enough enterprise resource management (ERP) systems that are affordable and deployable for mid-sized companies like them. The ones available are more appropriate for bigger companies. CFAM also needed agility at the team level, and none of the ERP systems out there are agile enough.

It’s why they turned to Matogen Zebra, who specialize in helping companies digitally transform by building ERP-type solutions in the Atlassian environment. Matogen Zebra designed a system architecture that mimics all the processes within CFAM, and built a Jira instance with workflows, issue types, and custom fields reflecting the operational movements of each department and individual. The system centralized the company’s data, enabling all teams to move together in the same direction.

“We started small,” Heinrich explains, “deploying Jira for one department, and grew, deploying it for another. It wasn’t long before everyone at CFAM was using it, across all hierarchical levels. Now CFAM has company-wide data, complete departmental integration, financial tracking, and throughput reporting at the individual, departmental, and project levels. No longer is CFAM making decisions in the dark. Jira offers complete visibility and allows CFAM to rely on collective rather than individual knowledge.”

A blend of Scrum, Kanban, Jira dashboards, and Gantt charts

The world of manufacturing can be quite old-fashioned and isn’t known for being agile. In fact agile’s polar opposite, the waterfall model, originated, and is still widely used, in manufacturing. So, Matogen Zebra had to develop a system that could integrate the flexibility of agile with set-in-stone manufacturing schedules and deadlines.

As is often the case with a hybrid system, the solution was to have both waterfall and agile methodologies at different levels. “At the departmental level, they needed waterfall project management,” says Heinrich. “But within each department, at the team level, they needed agile. For example, the artisans who deal with breakdowns and expedited orders need to be agile in order to prioritize the right job. Waterfall just wouldn’t work.”

Photo of CFAM Worker Using Jira
A CFAM worker using Jira

Matogen Zebra’s Jira system uses the Atlassian Marketplace add-on, Structure.Gantt by ALM Works, to generate Gantt charts at the departmental level. This is so department managers can work in waterfall, monitoring the project timeline and the sequence, duration, and dependencies of each task. Meanwhile, individual teams work in sprints using Jira Kanban boards, dashboards, and Custom Charts for Jira. In effect, because sprints are part of the Scrum methodology, CFAM’s Jira uses Scrumban, blending the sprint structure of Scrum with Kanban’s emphasis on workflow optimization.

“What’s great about Jira is that you can structure it so that everyone, from all walks of life and across all levels of expertise, can work in the same system,” says Heinrich. “The more team members you have actively contributing to your operational database the more powerful your data will be. Communicating on Jira tickets has been the key to uniting the waterfall and agile ways of working at CFAM, as has the integration between Structure.Gantt and Custom Charts. When managers move a deadline on a Gantt chart, it auto-updates on the teams’ Custom Charts dashboards, ensuring that everyone is on the same page.”

Fully Procured Items Bar Chart in Custom Charts for Jira

Custom Charts for Jira planning

Typically, sprint planning involves looking at the team’s agile board and pulling in Jira issues from the backlog that the team commit to completing in the ensuing sprint. But CFAM’s teams do their sprint planning differently. They have adopted a much more visual approach by using Jira dashboards and Custom Charts for Jira, and it works a treat.

“We helped CFAM see the potential of Jira dashboards as an agile planning tool, not just as a tool for reporting on progress or for looking back at a sprint at what worked and what didn’t,” says Heinrich. “But we knew that the native Jira gadgets wouldn’t give them the insights they needed, so we looked to the Atlassian Marketplace.”

Matogen Zebra initially compared Custom Charts for Jira with the business intelligence platform EazyBI, ultimately choosing the former for several reasons. “EazyBI was more expensive than Custom Charts, and a lot more complex,” says Heinrich. “I would’ve needed to teach all the CFAM engineers how to use EazyBI; there was no time. We needed a quick, realistic, and intuitive fix, and that’s what we found with Custom Charts.”

CFAM Custom Charts Dashboard for Planning

Using Custom Charts for Jira, CFAM create sprint planning dashboards to display work and deadlines for the next 7 days. As shown in the Assembly Planning dashboard above, they use 2D stacked bar charts to display monthly throughput, which helps managers to know how much work to expect from each team. They use tile charts to highlight missed deadlines and focus discussions on what needs attending to first. They use tables and more 2D stacked bar charts (Heinrich says that stacked bar charts are CFAM’s favorite chart type!) to show numbers of issues per assignee to evaluate who can and cannot take on more work. And they have Issue Lists offering specific details about outstanding issues.

With each chart, they’re able to filter the data down if they wish to home in on a particular assignee or set of issues. They can also click on and open each issue in the Issue List if they need more information. These are capabilities that are particularly useful during planning sessions.

Departmental Status Tile Chart in Custom Charts

“CFAM love the interactivity of Custom Charts,” says Heinrich. “It makes their planning sessions stimulating, the fact that you can hover over bars and see pop-up info, or click on segments and go straight to the issues.”

With Jira and Custom Charts, CFAM knows what to do and when to do it

Transparency and throughput have improved dramatically at CFAM since implementing Jira and Custom Charts. Managers and team members can now see the progress of their work and the status of the entire department at a glance, but they can also drill down into the data in a few clicks, fueling quick decisions based on real insights.

“A company needs to know what to do and when to do it to get to where they need to be,” says Heinrich. “Throughput goes up if you know these things, and now everyone at CFAM does, thanks to Custom Charts.”

Christopher is a self-confessed nerd who’d probably take the cake on Mastermind if Star Trek: Voyager was his specialist subject. He writes fiction about time travel, conspiracies and aliens; loves roller coasters, hiking and Christmas; and hates carpet, rom-coms and anything with chilli in it. He’s written extensively for technology companies and Atlassian partners and specializes in translating complicated technical concepts, specs and jargon into readable, benefits-driven copy that casual readers will understand.