This article provides a practical explanation of a Burndown Chart. After reading, you’ll understand the basics of this powerful project management tool.

What is a Burndown Chart?

A Burndown Chart is a graphical representation of the remaining tasks or activities during a certain period. The graph is often used in project management – for example, in combination with the Scrum Agile Methodology – and helps teams to monitor the progress of a project. It is important for the project manager to have a project run according to plan and to predict whether the team can realise their goals within the set time.

The graph consists of an X and Y axis. The X axis indicates the remaining time, whereas the Y axis visualises the amount of work that has yet to be completed. Every day, team members work on their assigned tasks. Afterwards, the amount of work can be plotted, and the graph will show a downward trend. A burndown chart starts with the complete amount of work and slowly ‘burns down’ until nothing is left, and the goal has been realised.

Because it is easy to understand and has a motivating effect, this simple and visually appealing graph is used by many project managers. For example, burndown charts are often part of brief stand-up meetings in which the completed and remaining work for a certain project is discussed. This forecasting tool provides an overall picture of the current situation.

Information in the Burndown Chart

As mentioned, a burndown chart consists of a X and Y axis. These axes represent a variety of information. After entering the data, the graph plots a line that shows the current status of the project or sprint. In addition, it shows the amount of work that has yet to be completed. In short, a burndown chart consists of the following information:

Total estimated labour and time (axis)

At the start of the sprint, the project manager or quality assurance team estimates how much labour is required for a specific task. The estimated versus the actual time and labour is tracked in the burndown chart. The Y axis shows the total labour, the X axis shows the time.

Amount of labour and remaining time (axis)

The Burndown Chart also visualises the amount of time the team has burnt up to a certain period in time. The remaining labour in a sprint can be added by plotting points against the Y axis. To get a quick overview of the remaining labour, you can also decide to represent labour in hours.

Ideal effort (line)

This straight line in the burndown chart visualises the project progress under the most ideal circumstances. This means no delays and no additional tasks that are added over time. The line runs from the start of the work or assignment, at the top of the Y axis, towards the end point in time, to the right at the end of the X axis.

Actual effort (line)

In general, this line varies from the line that indicates the most ideal scenario. After the team has completed a number of tasks, part of the remaining effort will burn away. When more items or tasks are added after the start of a period, you will see a peak in the actual effort line.

Correctly reading Burndown Charts

The project manager is responsible for the final product and achieving the set deadlines. He must therefore keep a close eye on how the team is performing. The progress of a sprint can look very differently in a burndown chart. Below is an explanation of various scenarios. The scenarios below assume a total project duration of seven weeks and a total of 100 tasks.

Ideal situation

The example below shows an ideal situation. This means the project team can stick to the plan and manages to realise the sprint goal in time. In a more realistic situation, the line representing the actual effort will run slightly above the sprint plan line.

Unexpected situation

In the example below, the team is confronted with unforeseen circumstances. For example, new tasks may have to be added in order to realise the goal. These activities were not included in the plans in advance and thus cause a peak in the current remaining effort.

Bad situation

The example below shows an alarming situation because the actual remaining effort constantly sits above the line that indicates the estimated remaining effort. Failure to run a sprint according to plan may have several causes. The first is incorrect planning with incorrect estimates. Another cause may lie with the team itself. If for some reason the team fails to stick to the plan, the project manager must closely keep track of this and possibly push the team at the end of a sprint in order to meet deadlines.

Pros and cons of Burndown Charts

Burndown charts are a powerful and effective tool with many strengths. Unfortunately, they also have a few shortcomings.
Pros of a Burndown Chart

  • Burndown Charts are easy to use and read
  • Burndown Charts clearly visualise the performance of the team
  • Burndown Charts also clearly visualise what has yet to be achieved
  • Burndown Charts have a motivating effect on the team
  • The use of burndown charts helps the project manager and team to keep a full overview

Cons of a Burndown Chart

  • User-friendly software for creating burndown charts is expensive, and the options in Microsoft Excel are limited
  • The motivating aspect of burndown charts can also be a pitfall. For example, they could lead to exaggerated expectations
  • Only the progress of an individual sprint or assignment is shown. The complete picture is missing
  • Burndown charts do not show which tasks are under development

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