Burndown Chart: What Is It & How Do I Use It?


At times it feels like there’s never enough hours in the day to get everything done. Often, the powers that be want things done yesterday, even though it’s an impossibility. Their intent is clear: get it done fast.

Therefore, clever managers know that time is a constraint which they’re always working to control. The better data they have related to time and work, the better they can adhere to the schedule and get the project completed on time and within budget.

A burndown chart is one such tool for collecting that project data. Using a burndown chart is a means of seeing how much work is left and how much time there is to do it in. It’s a graphical representation, offering in a picture what a thousand words might not be able to communicate as clearly.

A screenshot of the kanban board in ProjectManager.com, the perfect tool to handle your burndown charts

ProjectManager.com’s kanban boards are the perfect tool to manage your burndown charts. Improve your effeciency and try them today!

What Is a Burndown Chart?

A burndown chart is a graphic representation of how quickly the team is working through a customer’s user stories, an agile tool that is used to capture a description of a feature from an end-user perspective. The burndown chart shows the total effort against the amount of work for each iteration.

The quantity of work remaining is shown on a vertical axis, while the time that has passed since beginning the project is placed horizontally on the chart, which shows the past and the future. The burndown chart is displayed so everyone on the team can see it and is updated regularly to keep it accurate.

Variations of the Burndown Chart

There are two variants that exist for a burndown chart. A sprint burndown is for work remaining in the iteration. When illustrating the work remaining for the entire project, the chart is called a product burndown.

How to Read a Burndown Chart

The burndown chart has several points. There’s an x-axis, which is the project or iteration timeline. The y-axis is the work that needs to get done in the project. The story point estimates for the work that remains is represented by this axis.

example burndown chart

The project starting point is the farthest point to the left of the chart and occurs on day zero of the project or iteration. The project end point is farthest to the right and marks the final day of the project or iteration.

Ideal Work Remaining Line

There is an ideal work remaining line, which is a straight line connecting the start point to the end point. It shows the sum of the estimates for all the tasks that need to be completed. At the end point, the ideal line crosses the x-axis and shows there is no work left to be done. This line is based on estimates and therefore not always accurate.

Actual Work Remaining Line

Then there is the actual work remaining line that shows the actual work that remains in the project or iteration. At the beginning the actual work remaining and the ideal work remaining are the same, but as the project or iteration progresses the actual work line will fluctuate above and below the ideal work line. Each day a new point is added to this line until the project or iteration is done to make sure it’s as accurate as possible.

If the actual work line is above the ideal work line, it means there is more work left than originally thought. In other words, the project is behind schedule. However, if the actual work line is below the ideal work line, there is less work left than had been predicted and the project is ahead of schedule.

What Are the Benefits of a Burndown Chart?

The obvious benefit of a burndown chart is that it provides an updated status report on the progress of the project. Having a visual representation of this most important data keeps everyone on the same page.

Also, by displaying it prominently for all to see, it keeps everyone involved and encourages the team to deal with issues before they become problems. Therefore, the bigger the chart, the better. It should be the focal point of the workspace, so that it cannot help but direct conversation towards the project and its progress.

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The burndown chart is extremely helpful, too, because of its simplicity. It’s a great way to see the velocity history of the project. Velocity is an agile term that means the total effort estimates associated with user stories that were completed during an iteration.

What Are the Limitations of a Burndown Chart?

The burndown chart doesn’t reveal everything. For example, it only shows the number of story points that have been completed. The burndown chart doesn’t show any changes, for example, in the scope of work as measured by the total points in the backlog.

Therefore, it can be hard to tell if changes in the burndown chart are because of the backlog items having been completed or because of an increase or decrease in story points. Having a burnup chart can resolve this problem by having a separate line in the graph for overall backlog size.

However, neither a burndown nor a burnup chart offers any indication of which product backlog items have been completed. Therefore, a burndown chart might show progress but not whether the team is working on the right thing. So, these charts are a way to show trends rather than whether the team is delivering the right product back log items.

It Relies on Good Estimates

Another issue with burndown charts concerns the accuracy of the ideal work line. Whether the actual work line is above or below the ideal work line depends on the accuracy of the original time estimates for the tasks. Therefore, if a team is overestimating time requirements, progress will appear on track if not ahead of schedule. But if they are underestimating time requirements, it will appear that they are behind schedule.

There is a way to respond to this issue, and that’s by incorporating an efficiency factor into the burndown chart. Therefore, after the first iteration of a project, the efficiency factor is recalculated to allow for more accuracy.

How ProjectManager.com Helps With Sprint Management

A burnout chart is important, but it’s not the only guide that scrum teams have to direct them. There are many other reports and tools that can improve the probability of success. ProjectManager.com is an online collaborative software with the features scrum teams need to manage their sprints better.

Real-Time Dashboards

If you need a high-level view of your project, ProjectManager.com has a real-time dashboard that tracks your sprint as it happens. You get data as it’s updated for the most accurate view of your project possible. Now decisions are based on what’s going on, not what has already occurred.

Project dashboard that can track sprints in real time
ProjectManager.com’s dashboards track sprints in real time.

Robust Kanban Boards

But reporting on progress is only one part of what a scrum team needs. They want tools that will allow them to manage their product backlog and manage their sprints. ProjectManager.com has that part of the sprint covered too, with kanban boards that visualize workflows, collect user stories and tag and prioritize tasks, so scrum teams know what to work on when. And the kanban boards feed directly into ProjectManager.com’s reporting features.

kanban boards for managing sprints and backlogs
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Product owners and scrum masters will also appreciate the kanban for its transparency into the sprint. When going through a sprint retrospective, the kanban is an archive of what went right and what went wrong in the last sprint, so improvements can be made to do the next one better. ProjectManager.com has the features to manage sprints more effectively.

Managers must keep their eye on the progress of a project. If they don’t, then they’re risking the successful completion of the project. A burndown chart is just one of the many tools that lead to project success. ProjectManager.com is a cloud-based project management software that any manager will want to have in their toolbox. It has features such as a real-time dashboard to monitor and report on progress, and an online Gantt chart to streamline scheduling and help with collaboration. Try it today for free with this 30-day trial.

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