What is a burndown chart?

Burndown chart shows the estimated and actual amount of work to be done in a specific period of time and allows to understand how quickly the team is burning through the planned work. Burndown charts are popular in agile project management methodologies such as Scrum.

The horizontal axis of a burndown chart refers to time and the vertical axis refers to amount of work.

There are different types of burndown charts such as sprint burndown chart, release burndown chart, epic burndown chart and others. In this session, I will focus on sprint burndown chart (Scrum methodology).

Burndown chart

How sprint burndown chart works?

At the beginning of the sprint, the team forecasts how much work they are able to complete during a sprint. Normally, forecasts are made in hours or in story points. When the sprint is started, sprint burndown chart allows to track the progress throughout the sprint.

Let’s review at an example for better understanding.

There is a two-weeks sprint with tasks estimated at 200 hours. Gray line shows an ideal trend, or ideal sprint burndown chart, which is actually not achievable. Blue line shows the actual progress.

How to calculate actual progress? It’s easy. You just should subtract completed work from the planned work. For instance, it’s 4th day of the sprint and the team completed work estimated at 80 hours in total. Since total amount of work was calculated at 200 hours, we should calculate the following: 200 – 80 = 120 hours. The same logic is applied if the team uses story points instead of remaining hours. 

Ahead and behind schedule

Now, let’s review the demonstrated chart. What information we can see?

During the first two days everything was ok, you see that actual and ideal lines are the same. Then (days 2-4), we may see that the team completed tasks faster than planned which is definitely great. After that (days 5-8), the progress slowed down which is bad. Finally, (days 9-10) the teams speeds up and finishes the sprint on time. 

Sprint burndown chart

You may see that, if Actual Work line is below Ideal Work line, it means that the team has less work than it was originally forecasted; therefore, the team is ahead of schedule or, in other words, the team is doing great. If Actual Work line is above Ideal Work line, it means that the team has more work than it was originally forecasted, so the team is behind of schedule.

The purpose of the sprint burndown chart

Why do you need to pay attention to the sprint burndown report? The goal of a sprint is to have all the planned work completed by the end of the sprint. The chart allows understanding whether the team performs at the desired level. If the team shows lower performance, the scrum master and team should take actions. They should investigate what’s wrong, perhaps there are some impediments or anything else. After investigation, the team should take appropriate actions. 

Burndown graph also shows how a team estimates tasks. It shows whether the team underestimates or overestimates. The sprint report also can show if something was added to the sprint; project or tasks management systems normally update the burndown chart accordingly. So, sprint burndown chart is a very easy tracking tool which allows to understand how the sprint goes. 

A good practice is to check sprint burndown graph with the team at standup meetings, which are held on daily basis. Normally it’s sufficient to see the overall progress.  

Examples of burndown charts 

I created the demonstrated example in Excel. Download link you may find below.

The tracking can be done manually, for example, by adjusting Excel document or automatically, by any project or task management tools such as JIRA or Microsoft TFS or any other Agile tool which support scrum burndown charts and allow to generate them online. 

Here are some example of burndown charts from UI point of view:

JIRA burndown chart (based on remaining hours)

JIRA burndown chart based on remaining time estimate

JIRA burndown chart (based on story points)

JIRA burndown chart based on storypints

TFS burndown chart (based on remaining hours)