The Burndown Chart: What Is It and How to Use It?

The Burndown Chart: What Is It and How to Use It?
Vlad Kovalskiy
April 29, 2021
Last updated: September 13, 2021

A Brief Overview of Its History and Capabilities

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In 2020, the Burndown Chart turned 20 years old. Ken Schwaber invented this instrument to facilitate the workflow of Scrum teams.
It took the novelty just two years to become mainstream within the international manager community.
Burndown Chart belongs to the category of Agile instruments. It is a graphic representation of the progress that the staff makes when dealing with a client's user stories.
It enables the specialists to analyze the feature from an end-user perspective. It visualizes the aggregate effort against the amount of work for each iteration.
The Burndown Chart is available in two varieties. The product variety reflects the scope of work left until you ship the product.
The sprint version depicts how many tasks are left within one iteration.
All staffers can access the Burndown Chart at any moment. Managers should systematically update to verify that all the data it contains remains relevant.
When looking at the chart, you can see the current state of affairs and the evolution of the project starting from the moment of its inception. This enables you to make a forecast for the nearest future — but not for the medium or long term.

The Structure and the Meaning of the Chart

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A Burndown Chart consists of two axes. The vertical one reflects how much work you still need to carry out.
There is also a Burnup Chart, where this axis is inverted. The horizontal one shows how much time has passed since you began to handle the project. The latter axis visualizes both the future and the past.
The point in the left lower corner denotes the start of the iteration or the project. It is called "day zero".
The point in the right lower corner denotes the moment when you ship the ready-to-use product to the customer.
  • To use the Burndown Chart, you should estimate the amount of time that you devoted to work during the day and mark it on the horizontal axis.
  • Then, you should estimate the effort that you made and deduct it from the total amount of the upcoming effort. This is how you get two coordinates for the point that you mark on the chart.
  • The next day, you mark another point close to the first one.
  • Eventually, you will get a curved line that connects both axes. It will depict your actual work progress.
  • When the line crosses the horizontal axis, it means that you have finished all your tasks.

Ideally, that line should be straight. Each day, you take one step further along the horizontal axis and one step down the vertical one.
Yet the actual amount of work might vary from one day to another. This is why the curved line fluctuates below and above the straight one.
Your project is behind schedule if the curved line is located above the straight one. In the opposite case, you are going ahead of schedule.
The terms "ahead" and "behind" refer not to the speed of your work but to the amount of work that you still need to accomplish.
Let us imagine a situation where you realize that you might fail to meet the deadline.
Should the supervisor redistribute the tasks? Ask more staffers to join forces? Change the set of tools that the staff use to handle the project?
You will not find answers to these questions with the Burndown Chart alone. Once you already face difficulties in your business, this instrument will not help you overcome them.
But it will enable you to prevent the situation from getting worse. You can timely notice that your team is starting to lag behind and immediately take action.
You should look at the chart again in a few days to check whether you are performing better. If the situation improves, it means you came up with a worthy solution. If it does not, then you should keep looking for other ways out.

Integrating Burndown Charts into Your Workflow

The Burndown Chart is the easiest and the most affordable method of evaluating the efficiency of your time management.
  • At a glance, without lengthy explanations or complicated calculations, you can assess whether you are ahead or behind the schedule.
  • All your team members get an identical vision of the situation.
  • All staffers immediately understand whether they should accelerate or things are going as planned.
Your Burndown Chart should be large. The smaller it is, the closer the straight and the curved lines are to each other. Your team might think that the backlog is not too significant and that they can relax. With a big chart, the need for improvement seems more urgent and evident (it is a trick of perception).
The primary mission of the Burndown Chart is to initiate discussion. When you detect a problem, you should get to know its reasons and suggest possible solutions. You can use other project management tools for that — but in most cases, they would be too complex. They might focus on too many indicators that would distract your attention from the main problem — the necessity to meet the deadline.
The Burndown Chart does not allow multiple interpretations. When the staff is lagging with shipping the product, it is a fact. In more complex project management software, your focus can easily shift. For instance, one of your team members might say "Yes, we lost some time here. But we can catch up there and there. The thing is that we borrowed some resources from here and relocated them there, which allowed us to improve these and those aspects…". When talking like this, you get lost in cause-and-effect relationships.
Yet when you look at the Burndown Chart, you see that your team has started to slow down. To meet the deadline, you need to accelerate at a certain speed — and that is it!
When the whole staff is examining the chart, it brings people together and fosters productive collaboration.
The chart is famous for its brilliant psychological effect. When looking at it, you cannot find a scapegoat.
If there is something wrong with the project, all the staff is equally responsible for it. When the situation improves, it will be a collective achievement too.

Inevitable Shortcomings

The simplicity of this tool has a flipside. The only thing the Burndown Chart displays is the number of story points completed.
The scope of work as measured by the total points in the backlog might change — yet this tool would fail to reflect it.
So when you notice certain changes in the Burndown Chart, it might mean that your story points have decreased or increased.
But it might also mean that certain backlog items were completed. To check the cumulative backlog size, you should compile a Burnup Chart.
But even a Burnup Chart will not tell you which exactly which backlog items were completed.
These tools only visualize your progress but hardly tell you anything about the quality of your work.
Are you building the right product? Are you using the most efficient technique? Which aspects of the workflow should improve? None of the charts provide answers to these questions.
Another meaningful shortcoming consists in the fact that the Burndown Chart is not too precise. It gives only approximate evaluations.
When estimating the time dedicated to the task, you might either overestimate or underestimate it.
Your misconceptions will be reflected on the curved line: it will go either above or below the straight one.
To make the most of the Burndown Chart, calculate the efficiency factor as accurately as possible.
As the project progresses, you should recalculate the efficiency to minimize fallibilities.

Final Thoughts

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A Burndown Chart is a simple and efficient time management instrument.
You should try to use it, no matter how large or small your organization is and which sector you belong to. The Burndown Chart enables you to estimate at a glance whether the project is developing on schedule, going ahead of the schedule or lagging.
Unfortunately, this instrument will not enable you to analyze the qualitative aspects of the process.
Also, it cannot provide 100% accuracy. But it comes in handy for detecting upcoming bottlenecks long before they turn into a serious problem.
The chart is intuitive and easy to interpret. It will motivate all your team to take coordinated actions, work faster and perform better.
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