Keep reading to learn more about burndown charts (including its variants), concrete ways you can directly benefit from using one, and some actionable advice for how to effectively read them (with examples).
What is a burndown chart?
A project burndown chart (also known as a project burn rate chart) is a graph that shows how many project tasks are left to finish during a selected time period. Teams use it to keep track of progress and to visualize forecasting. The x-axis of the chart shows the amount of time (in days, weeks, or months) and the y-axis shows the number of tasks (or labor, in estimated hours).
It’s called “burndown” because it’s expected that your tasks will decrease as the project goes on, creating a literal downward line on the chart as your team “burns” through project activities. This is, of course, under ideal circumstances with limited disruptions or backlog, which is why this graph line is called the ideal line.
Project managers also add a second graph line called “actual effort” to visualize the amount of work or hours that were actually put in during that time period.
Benefits of burndown charts in project management
- Burndown charts help teams visualize their progress in real-time. It’s motivating and keeps everyone on the same page at any given moment.
- They provide a big picture view of projects before they begin. Project managers can use them to create more accurate timelines and effectively manage resources.
- Burndown charts facilitate client communication by setting simple and clear expectations. They’re easy to read and can help clients visualize your plan.
- They help you reevaluate progress as obstacles or new tasks come up. Simply adjust your tasks and timeline settings to see whether or not you’re still on track.
- Burndown charts help teams quickly react to scope creep. Once bottlenecks are identified, it’s easy to make new burndown charts that map out your client’s remaining options for better decision-making.
Introducing a project burndown chart
In this section, we’ll go over the best way to evaluate a burndown chart in agile even if it’s your first time learning about a brand new project. We’ll also cover some common variants and provide tips on how to read those as well.
How to read a burndown chart
Follow these simple steps and you’ll be a burndown chart pro in no time. Use this image of a standard burndown chart for practice.
Source: Wiki Commons
Step 1: Start with the x-axis
Note what units of measurement are used to represent time. More often than not, you’ll see days, weeks, or months. But if you’re looking at an agile burndown chart, you may see these units as story points (the amount of difficulty or effort needed per task).
Step 2: Next, look at the y-axis
Pay attention to the number at the top. It represents the total number of overall tasks or effort needed for the entire project. In this example, they’ve chosen to measure effort in hours rather than tasks.
Step 3: Then, read the ideal line
It will start at the top of the y-axis and end at the far right side of the x-axis since it represents the perfect distribution of workload and time elapsed without any interruptions. You will sometimes see plateaus, which represent steps that take longer than others to complete. Either way, this line will consistently slope downwards until it touches the bottom of the chart.
Step 4: Afterward, read the actual effort line
If the project hasn’t started yet then this step is irrelevant. But if it’s active, you’ll be able to see which periods of elapsed time went better or worse than expected. You’ll also discover large gaps in progress which may require a project overhaul to finish it on time.
Burndown chart variations
Luckily for you, there are only two! Here are some real examples of each, how they differ from each other, and how you can read them.
As you can probably guess, sprint burndown charts focus on shorter periods of time within a longer project. In this chart, you’ll typically see the x-axis measured in days (like the above example). This type of burndown chart is ideal for keeping a close eye on the more complex phases of a project where time is of the essence. Each sprint gets its own chart, but they’re all typically used alongside an epic burndown chart.
Here’s a great short video on the subject:
An Epic burndown chart (also known as an epic burndown report) provides an overview of sprints required to complete an epic over time. It shows current progress (sprint by sprint), tracks scope changes, and predicts completion.
Instead of lines, this type of burndown chart uses color-coded blocks that depict work remaining and work completed. Value is assigned to each unit and the end of the report will typically show the effort needed to start the next sprint.
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