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A burndown chart is a graphical representation of the work remaining for a project and the time remaining to complete it. Burndown charts are commonly used in software development, especially in teams using Agile project management. In this article, we discuss the components of a burndown chart, how to use it and its benefits and limitations.
What Is a Burndown Chart?
“Burndown charts are a way to look at the progress of your project as it relates to requirements,” Chris Mattmann, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer (CTIO) at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Forbes Advisor. The burndown chart plots the ideal progress as a downward slope reaching “burn down” to the project’s completion.
The chart is updated to reflect progress and the project’s current status, and you’ll be able to estimate when the project will be complete. This helps teams plan for deadlines and determine whether they will meet them.
Who Uses a Burndown Chart?
Team managers use burndown charts as a way to see the overall progress of the project and the work remaining. Developers may also use burndown charts to measure progress or to show the team what’s left to do in an Agile sprint.
Managers tend to track high-level requirements, while developers tend to track specific tasks. This is because managers will need a higher-level summary but the developers will want the specific tickets or tasks that are associated with satisfying those requirements.
Components of a Burndown Chart
There are several components of a burndown chart. Typically, they are either a bar chart, with one bar to represent each day of work, or a line plot, where the slope represents the overall progress of the work.
Agile teams may use a metric called “story points” to define the terms of the X-axis and Y-axis. They tell you the time remaining for the project, and the tasks needed to complete it. For example, a project may have 30 days until the deadline, with 40 tasks to complete.
The vertical axis (Y-axis): The Y-axis will track the amount of work remaining in the project. This will use different measurements depending on the project and what is being tracked. Some examples of measurement of progress are the number of Jira tickets there are left to complete, how many tasks need to be finished and how many requirements are left to satisfy.
The horizontal axis (X-axis): The X-axis typically tracks the time remaining until the project’s deadline.
Ideal work remaining: The ideal work remaining will be represented as a diagonal line sloped downwards. As the team updates the chart with progress on actual work remaining, the comparison between ideal work remaining allows the team to determine whether they are on the right track to completion or need to course correct.
Actual work remaining: This part of the burndown chart gets updated in realtime as the team progresses. It’s typically not a linear progression like the ideal work remaining, but will hover above or under the ideal work remaining line as the project progresses.
Benefits of a Burndown Chart
Burndown charts can illustrate what work was completed in each iteration, how quickly it was accomplished and what work remains. A burndown chart makes it easy for stakeholders, management and sponsors to see a representation of this progress. For example, if you’re using Scrum principles you’d be able to see that the team completed ten tasks in the last sprint and is either on track, exceeding expectations or falling behind.
Finally, the burndown chart allows you to see “the difference between the work done in each iteration, which you can count as a measure of the team’s overall velocity toward making progress,” Mattmann said.
Limitations of Burndown Charts
The biggest limitation of a burndown chart is that it’s a high-level summary. All tasks are treated equally when you summarize or count down, but it might not be clear that some are more difficult than others, Mattmann said. As an example, he explained a scenario where you might see the team has only accomplished five week tasks in one iteration, but in the prior’s iteration, the team accomplished 12. This doesn’t necessarily mean the team is getting closer to burning down, or that you can expect to only accomplish two in the next iteration. Rather, you might have only accomplished five tasks because there were five of the most difficult tasks associated with the requirement, Mattmann explained.
The burndown chart treats each task, its priority level and its difficulty as equal but, in reality, that’s obviously not always the case. When tasks are very similar, burndown charts are effective. But in a very complex project where the tasks have different priorities and/or difficulties, a burndown chart may make you think you’re almost done with the project when in reality you just had a sprint where you tackled very difficult tasks and didn’t accomplish as many of them, Mattmann said.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is Agile project management?
Agile is an iterative, introspective and adaptive project management methodology. In an Agile practice, a project is broken up into sub-projects. These are typically referred to as sprints. At the end of each sprint, stakeholders and the team review their work, make adjustments for the next sprint, and repeat until complete. The point of Agile is the constant, incremental delivery of value throughout the project, instead of all at once at the end.
What’s the difference between a burndown and burnup chart?
A burndown chart is a graphical representation of the work and time remaining for the project’s completion. It’s a project management tool used to track what’s left. A burnup chart, on the other hand, tracks the work already completed and can help motivate the team by displaying the progress made thus far.
What are the benefits of a burndown chart?
A burndown chart is an easy way to visualize the work remaining for a project on a daily basis compared to the ideal work remaining. It tells you whether the team is on schedule, ahead of schedule or running behind needing to get back on track. It is simple to create and can easily be shared with stakeholders, managers and the team.
What are the limitations of a burndown chart?
A burndown chart is a high-level summary. All tasks are treated equally in a burndown chart, which means it may not be clear that some tasks are a higher priority or more difficult than other tasks. This can create an unclear representation of progress, as it may appear that not much work has been done, when in reality the team had completed difficult tasks during that stage.