Agile Methodology

What is a Burndown Chart? An effective Agile planning and tracking tool.

A burndown chart is a graphical representation of work left to do versus time. It is very simple, easy to explain and understand. It is often used in agile software development methodologies such as Scrum. However, burndown charts can be applied to any project containing measurable progress over time. Outstanding work can be represented in terms of either time or story points. When tracking using the Burndown chart, teams can use a sprint Burndown chart and a release Burndown chart. It is one of the most important artifacts and a fundamental metric in agile scrum.

The Burndown Chart is a visual measurement tool that represents the effort remaining over a period of time, graphically. The chart has a Y axis (work) and an X axis (time). Ideally, the chart illustrates a downward trend as the amount of work still left to do over time “burns down” to zero.

The Origin of Burndown Chart

Burndown chart appear to be entirely original to the Scrum community; the term does not seem to have a prior use elsewhere in relation to managing software project or other efforts.

The burndown chart was first described by Ken Schwaber in 2000, who invented it while working at Fidelity Investments in an attempt to provide Scrum teams with a simple tool kit. In 2002 the burndown gains popularity among the Scrum community, as well as alternatives such as the “burnup” which merely inverts the vertical direction.

Understanding the Burndown Chart

The outstanding work (or backlog) is often on the vertical axis, with time along the horizontal. It is useful for predicting when all of the work will be completed. Burndown chart shows the following information in agile scrum methodology,Burndown Chart in Agile Scrum methodology

  • X-Axis: represents a unit of time in the form of weeks, or months – includes total working days (excluding holidays, weekend, etc.)
  • Y-Axis: Remaining effort, i.e. the time or story point estimates for the work remaining.
  • Project Start Point / Total Estimate: Day 0, i.e. the farthest point to the left of the chart. It is the sum of efforts in hours of all the user-stories, tickets, and issues.
  • Project End Point: Predicted Last day, i.e. the farthest point to the right of the chart.
  • Effort Remaining: The Team will burndown some effort each day so that on last day of sprint or release there is no work effort remaining.
  • Ideal Effort: A very straight line (blue here) running diagonally from the top left to the bottom right corner (End point). The ideal effort is drawn as a guide for a team, representing the required burndown to reach the goal, or the ideal position to be in at the end of each day.
  • Real Effort: The actual burndown line (red here) can be compared against this line to provide a simple measure of the progress of the project. If the actual line is above the ideal line the project is behind schedule. If the actual line is below the ideal line the project is ahead of schedule. The distance above or below the line shows how much the project is ahead or behind.

How to build a Burndown Chart

Burn-downs charts are among the most common tracking mechanisms used by agile practitioners. Burn down charts are easy to create manually using pen and paper, or they can be created by entering the data into a spreadsheet program such as excel. Alternatively software tools such as Intelligent Reports make it trivially easy to create a burndown chart for your project by using data already contained in your project management system. Many Agile tools (Rally, RTC, Version One, Mingle, etc.) have built-in capability for burn-down charts.

The starting point: In any Sprint, the team first selects tasks or User Stories they want to work on. All team members estimate the work for their assigned tasks, and when you combine all of the estimations of all tasks decided by the team, you get the Starting point (Total effort remaining). Every day the team member’s work on tasks and the work should reduce every day. Every day you can plot the remaining amount of work, and the graph displays a downward trend.

Burn-down can be plotted at the sprint level or the release level. While sprint burn-downs are generally tracked using effort remaining, it’s a common practice to use story points to track release burn-down.

Why use Burndown chart?

The goal of a burndown chart is to display the progress toward completion and give an estimate on the likelihood of timely completion. Its purpose is to enable that the project is on the track to deliver the expected solution within the desired schedule.

  • Single planning and tracking tool for the team: Empowers the team to own the plan. The entire team drives planning and tracking using the burn-down tool, which is the biggest advantage of using it.
  • Scope management: Tasks represent the overall scope of the sprint. Anything that is not part of the task list is out of scope for the sprint.
  • Schedule management: The team plans what it has to accomplish in a sprint and updates the task list. As it updates daily effort details, the team knows whether it is on track to meet the commitment or not.
  • Risk mitigation by daily visibility: The burn-down chart provides daily feedback on effort and schedule, thereby mitigating the risks and raising alarms as soon as something goes wrong.
  • Communication tool for customer and other stakeholders
  • Placeholder to track retrospective action items: It’s a good practice to include retrospective action items from the previous sprint as “nonfunctional requirements” in the task breakdown for the current sprint. This way, the team keeps a focus on those action items, and they are also tracked as the sprint progresses.
  • Motivational tool: They show your team what’s still to do, but also how much it has successfully completed.Release Burndown Chart in Agile Scrum

By reviewing the burndown chart, managers can:

  • Keep a track of how much work still remains.
  • Keep track of how quickly the team is completing their work.
  • Make predictions on when the team is likely to complete their goals.

Avoid the pitfalls

  • One of the common misunderstanding is between effort remaining and effort spent, especially during first few sprints or when a team is new.
  • People tend to think the Burndown chart is so simple they do not give appropriate attention to understand what it says.
  • Neither the burndown or burnup chart provides any indication of which product backlog items have been completed. This means that a team can have a burndown chart that shows continued progress, but it does not indicate whether the team is working on the correct things.
  • Burndown Chart can lead to over-heightened expectations. If you’re expecting your Burndown Chart to run in a neat, straight line – and are aggressively managing your team’s performance accordingly – there may be a risk of team members becoming disgruntled or demotivated, especially if they feel that the chart has become a “stick” to be beaten with, or that they are constantly under the performance microscope.

It is important not to become overly reliant on your Burndown Chart, and to use the whole range of your project management skills.

Track your Burndown

In the last ten years we have learned how to create products in an agile environment. The Burndown chart is mostly used in agile software development processes, in Scrum, primarily. However, Burndown charts can be applied to any project where progress can be measured over time, regardless of the process. Agility in software industry is more accepted these days because it brings visibility, intensive collaboration and simplicity. The popularity of burndown chart stems from their simplicity. It is a simple concept to see that the number of tasks must reach zero by a defined date.

If you don’t have a burndown chart implemented for your agile project, you can probably share this post with your team to get started 🙂

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