How To Elevate Your Agile Processes with Burndown Charts

Learn the nuts and bolts of burndown and burnup charts and how to use them to improve your agile teams' performance.

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Agile project management thrives on transparency and continuous improvement—burndown charts are the secret weapon to accomplish both more easily. These dynamic visual tools effectively illustrate your team's progress over time, highlighting the remaining work and revealing whether you're on track to meet your objectives.

By incorporating burndown charts into your agile project management approach, you'll be able to:

  • Swiftly pinpoint potential obstacles
  • Make informed, data-driven decisions, and
  • Maintain a unified team perspective.

In this article, we'll showcase the immense value of burndown charts for agile teams and demonstrate how to leverage them for optimal project outcomes.

Let's dive in!

What is a burndown chart in agile project management?

A burndown chart is a visual representation of work progress in an agile project, illustrating the amount of work completed against the remaining tasks (usually measured in story points).

This easy-to-understand format allows the team and stakeholders to monitor progress and make adjustments as project requirements change, making it an essential tool for project managers to track progress or identify risks.

For each iteration, a burndown chart can be created based on the planned work. Additionally, an initiative-level burndown chart can be used to track progress across multiple iterations of the same project, helping to predict completion dates.

an example of a burndown chart showing the actual and estimated work measured in story points per iteration
An example of a burndown chart showing the actual and estimated work measured in story points per iteration. When a point of the actual work line is to the right of the estimated work line, the team is ahead of schedule, and vice versa.

Many software or technology development projects are new and innovative, meaning the team has entered uncharted waters. When a map to the final designation is not yet available, burndown charts help estimate when the next stages of the project will begin based on the speed the team has been delivering value thus far and the remaining work in the iteration or project.

Burndown charts enable teams to quickly identify whether tasks are completed ahead of schedule, behind schedule, or not. Despite their simplicity, burndown charts are valuable for all project members as they demonstrate the team's work velocity and provide crucial feedback on development resources needed, impending deadlines, and potential subsequent actions.

The different uses of burndown charts

Burndown charts are a powerful tool for visualizing and tracking progress toward project completion at the individual iteration level and across the entire project timeline.

When looking at a single iteration, the burndown chart provides a more detailed view of progress during that specific period. However, the chart offers a broader perspective of overall progress and trends when zooming out to encompass the entire project.

The vertical axis of a burndown chart represents the remaining work to be completed, while the horizontal axis denotes the passage of time. A line is plotted from the beginning of the timeline, indicating the total effort required to complete all tasks.

As each day or iteration progresses, the total remaining effort decreases until the projected completion is reached. By comparing this progress against an ideal line based on expected task completion dates, burndown charts can offer valuable insights into team performance and highlight any necessary adjustments to keep the project on track.

Burndown vs. burnup

In agile project management, both burndown and burnup charts are used to visualize and track the progress of a project. While they serve similar purposes, the way they display information differs.

A burndown chart shows the amount of work remaining to be completed in a project or iteration, with the vertical axis representing the remaining work and the horizontal axis representing time. As the project progresses, the chart shows a decrease in the amount of work left.

On the other hand, a burnup chart displays the work completed so far and any scope changes across the iteration or project. The vertical axis represents the accumulated work, while the horizontal axis still represents time. As the project progresses, the chart shows an increase in the work completed.

two charts showing the difference between burndown and burnup

Both charts have their merits, and the choice between them often comes down to personal preference. A burnup chart may be more suitable for projects with a changing scope, as it clearly displays the impact of scope changes on the overall timeline.

The benefits of using burndown charts

Burndown charts are a popular tool in project management that help teams track project progress and identify potential issues. This tool helps you:

  • Track project progress: Burndown charts provide a visual representation of progress, which helps track the status of a project over time. Teams can quickly see if they are behind or ahead of schedule and adjust their plan accordingly.
  • Identify potential problems or delays: By showing progress over time, burndown charts highlight potential issues or delays that might impact the project's timeline. This allows teams to take corrective action early on, minimizing the impact on project completion.
  • Help with delivery date predictions and planning: By providing visibility into the project's status, burndown charts help with delivery date predictions and planning. This enables teams to prioritize tasks and allocate resources effectively.
  • Provide visibility to stakeholders: Burndown charts can be shared with stakeholders, giving them visibility into the project's progress. This allows stakeholders to monitor the project's status and provide feedback, which can help ensure the project meets its goals.
  • Motivate team members: Burndown charts can motivate team members to complete their work on time. By visualizing progress and deadlines, team members can focus on completing tasks and meeting project goals.

Disadvantages of using burndown charts

Let's now look at some drawbacks of using burndown charts. In general, they:

  • Require accurate data: To be effective, burndown charts need accurate data. This means that all tasks must be accurately estimated, and their statuses must be kept up-to-date. The chart will only help manage the project if the data is accurate.
  • Demand regular updates: Burndown charts must be regularly updated to provide an accurate picture of the project's progress. This can be time-consuming, primarily if the team uses a manual process to update the chart.
  • Must be interpreted: The data represented in burndown charts must be interpreted to be helpful. This interpretation can be difficult, especially if the data is complex or the project scope is rapidly changing.
  • Can create pressure on team members: Burndown charts can generate pressure on team members to meet deadlines, which can lead to burnout or quality issues if the focus is only on finishing work rather than doing it well.
  • May only be appropriate for some projects: Burndown charts may only be appropriate for some types of projects or teams. For example, if the project has highly variable scope or if the team is not familiar with agile methodologies, the chart may not be effective.



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How to create your burndown chart

By following a few simple steps, you can create an effective burndown chart that will help you track your team's performance and ensure that your project is completed on time and within budget.

  1. Gather data: Collect estimated task duration or weight in story points, resources involved, and remaining tasks.
  2. Plan the chart: Use the Y-axis to represent the amount of work to be done and the X-axis to represent time, showing dates or iteration numbers.
  3. Chart the work: Plot the chart with all the work pending at the start on the left and all the work finished on the right. The chart shows the amount of work remaining over time, with the goal of burning down all of the work until it is completed.
  4. Choose a tool: Burndown charts can be created using various tools, including spreadsheets and project management software.
  5. Set up columns: If using a spreadsheet such as Excel, start with columns for the date or iteration, planned value (the estimated amount of work that should be completed by that time), actual completed value, and what's left (the difference between the planned and actual completed value).
  6. Fill in the chart: Fill in the columns for each period, updating the completed value and what's left as work is finished.
  7. Update regularly: It's essential to update the burndown chart regularly to reflect the project's progress accurately. This can be done manually, but many project management tools will update the burndown chart automatically as work is completed and the status of tasks changes.

How do you interpret a burndown chart?

To interpret a burndown chart, you should first look at the overall trend of the line. Ideally, it should show a downward trend indicating less and less remaining work over time. This trend can help you identify potential impediments that may cause delays in meeting project deadlines.

Additionally, you should compare the trend of tasks against their deadlines to see if they are on track to be completed on time. If they are not, the workload must be reevaluated or adjusted accordingly.

It's important to remember that interpreting burndown charts at a glance requires a deep understanding of the entire project and any out-of-scope tasks or deliverables that may not be reflected in the chart itself. The chart is an instrument to measure progress and should not be used to conflate with the team's productivity or performance.

Acting on the results

To act on what the burndown chart tells you, you should look for variances or discrepancies between the actual and expected (or baseline completion) rates. If there's a growing backlog of unfinished work or completion is significantly below expectations for a while, it's time to intervene and understand the challenges the delivery team faces.

The goal in intervening based on chart data is to work with the team to deliver as much value as possible within the allotted time frame. This means taking a supportive approach and asking what you can do to help lighten the load and get the team back on track.

It's important to avoid jumping to conclusions and blaming team members for delays. Instead, work together to identify potential solutions and implement strategies to help improve the velocity or value of work completed in an iteration.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when using burndown charts?

To effectively use burndown charts in project management, it's essential to avoid these common mistakes that can hinder progress towards your team's collective goals:

  • Not defining the scope of the project: It's essential to clearly understand the project's scope before creating a burndown chart. This includes defining the project's goals and objectives and identifying all the tasks and deliverables that need to be completed to achieve them. With a clearly defined scope, it's easier to create an accurate burndown chart that can provide valuable insights into the project's progress and timeline.
  • Not estimating the amount of work accurately: Estimating the work involved in each task is critical for creating an accurate burndown chart. Teams must be careful to provide realistic estimates for the work required. Failure to estimate accurately can lead to incorrect or misleading data that can impact the project's timeline and overall success.
  • Not tracking progress accurately: Teams must update the burndown chart regularly to ensure that it accurately reflects the project's current status. If tasks are not routinely updated, the chart can become misleading and make it difficult to track progress accurately. Accurate progress tracking is crucial for identifying potential problems and making necessary adjustments to the project plan.
  • Not using the burndown chart properly: A burndown chart is a tool that can help manage and monitor the project's progress. It's essential to use the chart properly to identify problems and opportunities that can support the team in achieving their desired outcome. The burndown chart should not be used solely to track the team's progress or performance. Instead, it should be used to identify trends, risks, and opportunities to help the team stay on track and achieve its goals.
  • Not communicating with other team members: Communication is crucial when using burndown charts. Team members must share information about the project's progress, challenges, and opportunities to ensure everyone is aware of what's happening. Failing to communicate with other team members can lead to misunderstandings, missed deadlines, and other issues that can negatively impact the project's success. The burndown chart is a tool to facilitate communication, not a substitute for it.