What Is a Burndown Chart in Agile and How Can it Help You?

By Robert Preston

Updated July 27, 2022 | Published September 29, 2021

Updated July 27, 2022

Published September 29, 2021

Robert Preston is a trained journalist with a deep interest in technology. He has been passionate about and studied coding for over 20 years.

A burndown chart provides a visualization of the work you have completed and the work you have remaining on a project or sprint. This can make it a highly useful tool when overseeing project management in an Agile workplace. Learning about burndown charts may help you determine if they would be a valuable addition to your project management tools.

In this article, we discuss what a burndown chart in Agile is, its key components and the benefits and drawbacks of using one, and we provide tips on how to implement burndown charts within an organization successfully.


What is a burndown chart in Agile?

A burndown chart in Agile is a graphic representation of a team's progress compared to the user story and estimated required time to complete the project. An Agile burndown chart provides a visual representation of both completed project work and the work outstanding to chart progress. This can be useful when making decisions related to workload and project target adjustments.

In Agile, burndown charts represent the end user's perspective because they represent how much of the project remains rather than what the team already completed for the project. There are two variations of burndown charts you may use in Agile project management:


Product burndown chart

A product burndown chart provides a broader perspective of the project and represents the remaining work for an entire project. It displays how many product goals the team achieved and how much work remains for the entire project. In this type of burndown chart, the horizontal axis shows the sprint numbers, and the vertical axis represents the story points.

Related: What Is Agile Project Management?


Sprint burndown chart

A sprint burndown chart represents the remaining work within a specific project iteration. It displays ongoing sprints and user stories based on what the team determines during sprint planning efforts. In this type of burndown chart, the horizontal axis includes days in the sprint, and the vertical axis indicates the remaining hours or project points to complete.

Related: 5 Agile Requirements for Successful Project Management


Components of a burndown chart in Agile

Burndown charts in Agile typically look like line graphs. Some components of these charts include:


Axes

As the burndown chart is a line graph, it includes two axes. The y-axis, or the vertical axis, includes the story points. The story points represent the work that the team needs to complete in the project or iteration. The x-axis, or the horizontal axis, represents the timeline for the iteration or project, and it may include specific dates or periods.


Points

Burndown charts include multiple types of points for the lines to connect. The story points along the y-axis represent the estimated work remaining for the project at the indicated time. The project starting point is the leftmost point on the x-axis, and it occurs on day zero of the iteration or project. Conversely, the project endpoint is the rightmost point on the x-axis, indicating the end of the project or iteration. Additional points during development show a physical representation of progress.


Estimated remaining work line

The estimated remaining work line is a straight line running from the highest point on the y-axis to the last point on the x-axis. This represents steady progress from the initiation of a project or sprint to its conclusion. Although it’s normal for a project to not follow a perfectly linear path, this line provides a guide that you can compare progress against to determine whether a project is moving ahead of schedule or falling behind.


Actual work remaining line

The actual work remaining line is a representation of how much work remains on a project at each point along the schedule. The more frequently you update your actual work remaining line, the more detailed your burndown chart becomes. You can compare progress on your project to the estimated work remaining line, with an actual work remaining line below the estimation line indicating a project ahead of schedule and an actual work line above the estimation line showing that the project is behind.

Related: Agile vs. Traditional Project Management: Benefits and Differences


Benefits of using a burndown chart in Agile

Using a burndown chart in Agile may provide many benefits, including:

  • Engaging the entire team: All members of a team are typically able to view and update the burndown chart. This encourages collaboration, motivates individuals to succeed and empowers them to address issues.


  • Highlighting comparisons: Burndown charts typically include two lines to represent the expected and actual performance related to the project, and each line is often a different color. This allows all team members to compare their performance with the expectations easily to understand their success.


  • Promoting conversations: Most Agile organizations use the burndown chart as a focal point in the workspace. Highlighting the importance of the chart encourages people to talk about the project and its progress and offer suggestions for improved performance.


  • Providing status reports: Most organizations update their burndown charts daily. This helps ensure the reports are accurate and provides all team members with up-to-date knowledge about the success and progress of the project.

Related: 14 Pros and Cons of Agile Methodology (Plus Definition)


Drawbacks of using a burndown chart in Agile

When deciding whether to use a burndown chart, it can be beneficial to understand potential drawbacks so you understand how to address them if challenges arise:

  • Estimation variance: The accuracy of estimation can play a significant role in the effectiveness of a burndown chart: If the original estimates of the time required for certain tasks are inaccurate, this may incorrectly represent the actual progress of the project. You may reduce this risk by updating estimation methods as you carry out projects and receive practical data on their accuracy.

  • Lack of causal information: While burndown charts represent what the team has completed, they don’t reflect changes to the scope of work or how this compares to backlog items. You can counter this concern by supplementing your chart with tools such as burnup charts and by documenting any alterations to a sprint or product.

  • Reduced specificity: While a burndown chart can provide an excellent representation of the total work remaining on a project, it does not visualize what the individual elements are. This is why a burndown chart is most helpful when it’s one element of a larger project management plan so there are additional options in place for gaining important context.

Related: The 24 Best Free Project Management Software Tools for 2022


How to use a burndown chart in Agile

Here are the steps to follow for using a burndown chart in an Agile framework:


1. Review the project scope

Examine the project scope. Create a list of specific tasks the project requires, and consider which team members you may need to complete each task. Review the deadline requirements to determine when you need to complete the project, and think about smaller deadlines to include as sprint intervals throughout the project.

Related: What Is Project Scope? 7 Steps For Defining Project Success


2. Estimate time requirements

Estimate how much time each task will require to complete. To help ensure you provide accurate estimates, consider reviewing previous burndown charts from similar projects or individual performance metrics of the team members involved. It may be beneficial to consider other workload requirements team members have and potential barriers to the project's progress when you develop your estimates.

Related: How To Create a Project Timeline in 8 Easy Steps


3. Create the chart

Plot your burndown chart after you have a project timeline and the story points. Create and label the axes appropriately, and add the initial plot points. Consider using different colors for the ideal work remaining and actual work remaining lines, as this can make it easier for everyone to compare the differences between the two.


4. Record the project progress

Monitor project progress and record it on your burndown chart regularly. Frequent updates ensure it accurately represents the project's progress. Many organizations update the data daily to track progress closely.

Related: Tracking Project Progress in 7 Steps


5. Analyze the burndown chart

Assess the burndown chart throughout a product or sprint to identify areas of interest. Analyze the burndown chart and the pattern of the data. This can help you identify areas where a project is strong and areas for potential improvement.


Identifying patterns in a burndown chart

When assessing your burndown chart on a product or sprint, identifying patterns may help you make informed business decisions. Some examples of patterns you may see include:


Plateau

A plateau occurs when there is a horizontal section on the actual work remaining line. This indicates there was a setback in the project that has stalled progress. Identifying a plateau pattern may help you identify potential blockers to progress in your projects, which can help you address them and may be helpful to consider when planning future projects and timelines.


Scope creep

Scope creep occurs when a client or senior employee changes the scope of the project, such as adding new elements. This results in the amount of work remaining on the project increasing to account for this new scope. While occasional scope changes may be beneficial, if you consistently see spikes in the actual work remaining line from scope creep on burndown charts, you may benefit from more thorough planning on projects and sprints to reduce the need for mid-execution edits.

Read more: Scope Creep: Definition, Causes and How To Avoid It


Underestimation

An underestimation pattern occurs when the actual work remaining line consistently trends above the ideal work remaining line. This often suggests the time estimates for the ideal line were inaccurate, but it may also indicate there were too many story points in a particular sprint. An underestimation pattern may suggest it's important for you to better review previous performance metrics to help ensure your estimates are more accurate.

Related: FAQ: What Are the 4 Agile Values? (Plus Principles)

Tips for using burndown charts in agile

These tips for using burndown charts may help you increase your team’s productivity:


  • Update frequently. Maintain a frequent and consistent update schedule on your burndown charts. This provides the staff who view the charts with as timely information as possible to help them make more informed decisions about their work.


  • Make them visible. Place your burndown charts somewhere that makes it easy for staff members to see and access them. This may mean physically placing it in a high-visibility setting or digitally providing staff members with easy links to the charts.


  • Discuss burndowns in scrums. Your scrum meetings provide an excellent opportunity to discuss progress and consult the burndown charts. By showing where you’re ahead or behind schedule, you can talk with your staff or coworkers to find the best path forward.


  • Perform a debrief. Assess the results of a sprint or product at its conclusion and identify how accurate your estimates were and areas of strengths and areas for improvement.

  • Adjust future expectations. Use the information you gather during your project or sprint on future burndown charts. Increasing the accuracy of your estimations can make your burndown charts more functional.


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