GUIDE 2024

What is a Burndown Chart?

Curious to know what a Burndown Chart is and how to use it for project management?

Then look no further.

In the 1990s, the burndown chart became the brainchild of two of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto: Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, in an effort to help organizations streamline the software development process.

This article explores the functions and characteristics of burndown charts and how to incorporate them into Scrum projects to enhance task management.

Let’s dive right into the discussion.

What is a Burndown Chart?

A burndown chart is an agile project management tool that agile teams use to compile information about work that is in progress or ready for completion within a specific time period or sprint. Burndown charts are visual representations of each iteration. The graphs provide estimates of the team’s ability to work through the user stories, ensuring they meet deadlines.

It is necessary to update the chart on a regular basis so that the scrum team has accurate information. Having insight into the status of work allows the team to resolve any issues, thus resulting in favorable outcomes. The typical structure of the burndown chart entails vertical and horizontal axes, which reflect the quantity of work or effort, as well as the passage of time from past to future.


How to use a Burndown Chart

The primary function of burndown charts is to display the overall progression of the project and the amount of work remaining. As such, team managers and developers alike make use of burndown charts to track project tasks ranging from high-level requirements to the ones that are more specific, to the development teams.

In order to compile information to populate the burndown chart, teams engage in sprint meetings to decide how to categorize the actual work and estimate the amount of time it takes to complete each task. 

Teams then use the metrics from the chart for the following reasons:

  • To monitor the scope of work during each iteration 
  • To display work that is complete
  • To visualize remaining work
  • To gather information for prospective sprint planning meetings
  • For efficient management of tasks that result in successful sprints
  • To estimate the completion time of a project

Setting Estimation Statistics

The estimation statistic is the key unit of measurement that teams use to estimate work. While various software tools for measuring and creating charts exist, such as Jira Software, it is possible to either personalize the statistic or use alternative settings, for example: story points.

Most agile teams now use story points as a metric compared to traditional software teams, which use time (days, weeks, months). For instance, a project with a 30-day deadline may require 40 tasks for completion. Story points estimate the overall effort that a task requires and is relative to factors such as work complexity, workload, and risks.

Setting the estimation statistic helps calculate team velocity. Velocity refers to the sum of the estimation statistics within each sprint. Maintaining a consistent velocity makes it possible to determine the amount of work a team completes during a sprint.


Types of Burndown Charts

Since burndown charts ensure that work is on schedule for completion, two variants exist: sprint burndown charts and epic burndown charts.

Sprint Burndown Charts

This graph displays the amount of work within a sprint. It tracks the total work remaining and leaves room for making projections about whether or not the team achieves the sprint goal. The team is then free to manage its progress and make any changes in accordance with its objectives. 

An example of this is if the burndown chart reflects that the team may not achieve the sprint goal, they can make the necessary changes to ensure that they remain on target.

Epic Burndown Charts

This graph illustrates the amount of work remaining for the entire project. It simplifies the tracking process because it shows the progression of work across the overall team. The epic burndown chart helps to reflect the following:

  • The speed at which the team works through the epic.
  • How adding or removing work during the sprint impacts the team’s overall progress. 
  • A prediction of the number of sprints the project requires in comparison with past performance and when accounting for changes during the sprints.

Components of a Burndown Chart

The typical burndown chart takes the form of either a bar graph or line plot, where the leftmost point represents the commencement of a project or sprint and the rightmost point reflects its conclusion. Here are the other components of which the burndown chart comprises:

Horizontal Axes (X-Axis)

It is common that the X-Axis represents the time remaining until the project or iteration deadline. 

Vertical Axes (Y-Axis) 

The Y-axis represents the amount of work remaining on the project. To reiterate, software teams use varying units of measurement, however, scrum teams, in general, utilize story points. 

Ideal Work Remaining Line

The ideal work remaining line demonstrates the remaining work that the scrum team has at any point during the sprint or project and establishes the standard or baseline conditions that guide the team’s efforts. Team managers set the baseline by using previous data. 

It is a straight line that has a negative or downward slope and connects the starting and ending point of the burndown chart. The ideal work remaining line reflects the sum of estimates for all tasks. When the team updates the chart to show the project’s progression, they compare it to the ideal work remaining line, which allows them to deduce whether or not they are in alignment with the project objectives.

Take note that since the ideal work line depends on estimates, it is not always accurate.

Actual Work Remaining Line

The actual work remaining line is an accurate representation of the team’s remaining work for the project. Throughout the project, the team updates the line in real-time by adding new points after completing an iteration. 

The actual work remaining line, therefore, does not progress in a linear way, as with the ideal work remaining line. Instead, the actual work line fluctuates above and below the ideal work line. When it is above, it is indicative that there is more work remaining and the project is behind schedule. However, when it is below the ideal work line, there is less work remaining to make the project ahead of schedule. 


Advantages of Using Burndown Charts

The use of burndown charts as a project management tool has several benefits:

  • The straightforward formatting of the chart makes it easy to use as well as interpret the information it reflects.
  • Having a visual representation of how the project progresses ensures that all team members remain up to date with the status of their work.
  • Since all team members have access to the chart, it encourages group collaboration and cohesion and allows for prompt resolution of issues with the workflow.
  • Burndown charts provide insight into the velocity of the project, which is a key metric for determining the requirements and total effort necessary for completing user stories during each iteration.
  • It is an effective method of illustrating to stakeholders and upper management alike, whether tasks are on schedule, ahead of schedule, or falling behind.
  • A burndown chart serves as an incentive and motivation to team members because their progress is visible.

Limitations of Burndown Charts

Although there are advantages to using burndown charts, there are also some hindrances:

  • The burndown chart only shows the story points that are complete, and as such, it is not a true reflection of the entire scope of work remaining in the backlog.
  • Changes in the chart do not account for the level of complexity of the tasks. Burndown charts prioritize quantity, and as a consequence, they lead teams into thinking that the project is closer to completion. In reality, complex tasks may represent a small fraction of the actual workload.

Burndown Charts: Key Takeaways

A burndown chart is a graphical representation of outstanding work. It provides scrum teams with insight into the progression of their backlog by mapping out story points that reflect the actual effort, remaining effort, and the time they require.

Burndown charts ensure that team members are on the same page because they make the scope of the project clear by displaying the impact of decisions. In the end, teams maintain the flexibility to make changes to achieve project success.

Josh Fechter
Josh Fechter
Josh Fechter is the co-founder of Product HQ, founder of Technical Writer HQ, and founder and head of product of Squibler. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.