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Burndown chart: What it is and how to use it (with example)

Team Asana contributor imageTeam Asana
May 29th, 2024
11 min read
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A burndown chart is a graph that represents the work left to do versus the time it takes to complete it. It can be especially useful for teams working in sprints, as it can effectively show whether your deadlines are able to be met along the way. Find out how to create your own burndown chart.

You start your Monday off with a sprint meeting. You find out there was an issue with development, which could set you back a couple of days. You wonder, is there even enough time to get it all done by next week?

Most of us have been in a similar time crunch scenario, and finding enough time in your team’s schedule to complete your projects can be challenging. That’s where a burndown chart comes in. 

A burndown chart helps analyze the work you have to do versus the time it takes you to complete it. This can be an excellent tool to visualize and better manage your team’s workload so you can prioritize your schedule. Let’s dig into what a burndown chart is and how to create one of your own. 

What is a burndown chart?

A burndown chart is a visual representation of the remaining work versus the time required to complete it. By estimating the time it takes to complete tasks, issues, and testing, you can determine the project completion date.

[inline illustration] what is a burndown chart (infographic)

A burndown chart is used to efficiently calculate whether your team has enough time to complete their work and is commonly used while working in short iterations. Not only can this graphical representation help determine project completion dates, but it can also give you insight into how your team works.

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How does a burndown chart work?

A burndown chart works by estimating the amount of work needed to be completed and mapping it against the time it takes to complete work. The objective is to accurately depict time allocations and to plan for future resources. 

Burndown charts are used by a variety of teams, but they are most commonly used by Agile teams. That’s because these charts are best at analyzing short iterations, such as sprints.

Types of burndown charts

Burndown charts are versatile tools that can be applied to various levels of Agile project management and Scrum frameworks. The three main types of burndown charts are:

  • Sprint burndown charts: These charts visualize the progress of a single sprint, typically lasting 1-4 weeks. They help teams track their daily progress, identify deviations from the plan, and make necessary adjustments to ensure they meet the sprint goal.

  • Release burndown charts: Used to track the progress of a single release, which usually consists of multiple sprints, these charts help software development teams and stakeholders visualize the progress towards completing all the user stories and epics planned for a specific release.

  • Product burndown charts: Also known as epic burndown charts, these charts track the progress of an entire product backlog or a large body of work, such as an epic. They provide a strategic, long-term view of the project, helping teams, Scrum Masters, Product Owners, and stakeholders align on the overall progress and make informed decisions about prioritization, resource allocation, and release planning.

By understanding and leveraging these different types of burndown charts, Agile and Scrum teams can effectively monitor and communicate progress at various levels, from daily sprints to long-term product development. This enables them to adapt to changes, optimize their workflow, and continuously deliver value to their customers.

Need help with sprint planning? Use our ’sprint planning template to keep your next sprint on track.

Burndown chart vs. burnup chart

A burnup chart is used to track how much work has been completed. Both a burndown chart and a burnup chart keep you informed about different moving parts within a project, which is why they are frequently used together. 

Key components of a burndown chart

A burndown chart consists of several essential components. Understanding each element is crucial for effectively reading and creating your own burndown chart, which is a valuable tool in agile project management.

X-Axis: Sprints or time

The X-axis, or horizontal axis, represents the time remaining to complete the project, typically measured in sprints or days. In scrum projects, the X-axis often displays the number of sprints, while in other cases, it may show the number of days left until the project's completion.

Y-Axis: Remaining effort

The Y-axis, or vertical axis, represents the remaining effort required to complete the project. This effort is usually quantified using story points, a metric that estimates the relative complexity and work involved in completing user stories or tasks.

Actual effort line

The actual effort line represents the real work remaining at the end of each sprint or day, reflecting the team's progress. This line may deviate from the initial estimate due to unforeseen issues, changes in scope, or inaccurate estimations. The actual effort line is likely to be less linear than the ideal effort line, reflecting the reality of project progress.

Ideal effort line

The ideal effort line represents the estimated work remaining in an ideal scenario where the team completes work at a steady pace without any issues or delays. This line usually follows a straight trajectory from the total work to zero. The ideal effort line serves as a benchmark to compare against the actual progress.

Story points

Agile teams often use story points to estimate the relative effort required to complete user stories, epics, or tasks. In a burndown chart, the story points are represented on the Y-axis. The X-axis may display the number of sprints or days remaining.

Sprint goal

An effective burndown chart should include the overall sprint goal, which helps keep the team focused and motivated. The sprint goal is often represented as a target line on the chart, indicating the desired progress at the end of each sprint. While the actual progress may deviate from this goal, having a clear target helps guide the team's work.

While burndown charts are great for quickly evaluating the ratio of work remaining and the time it takes to complete that work, they don’t show everything about the trajectory of a project. For example, a burndown chart doesn’t show the project changes. This makes it difficult to tell if changes are because of the backlog of items being completed or because of a change in story points. 

This is why burndown charts are often paired with a product backlog, managed by the product owner, and a change control process to effectively track project progress.

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How to create a burndown chart in 5 easy steps

Now that you know what a burndown chart is, how do you, the project manager, go about creating one? Burndown charts may look simple, but there are a few steps that you’ll need to complete before finalizing your chart. 

From estimating effort to tracking daily progress, let’s look at the five steps to creating a burndown chart to estimate the amount of work needed. 

Step 1: Estimate the effort required

The first step to create a burndown chart is to estimate the effort needed to complete a given sprint. You can do this by considering your ideal baseline. In other words, the ideal amount of time in a given timeframe.

For example, let’s say your ideal baseline is to complete your sprint in 5 days with 80 hours of work. That equates to 16 hours of work per day. You would then begin your effort trajectory at 80 (representing 80 hours) and track your effort for the remaining days. This would look something like this:

  • Day 1: 80 hours of work

  • Day 2: 64 hours of work

  • Day 3: 48 hours of work

  • Day 4: 32 hours of work

  • Day 5: 16 hours of work

Once you have your estimated effort, you can begin tracking your daily progress in order to start your burndown line.

Step 2: Track daily progress and remaining work

Once you have your estimates, you can begin tracking your daily progress. This can be done with a simple chart or timeline tool. You’ll want to track how much time it takes to complete each task and how that effort is pacing toward your goal. 

Here is an example of what your daily progress should look like:

[inline illustration] daily process tracking (example)

At the end of the fifth day, each of the tasks should add up to a total of 80 hours, as estimated in the first step. 

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Step 3: Calculate actual effort spent

After calculating the estimates, use a similar chart to track the actual effort it takes to complete each task. This may be the same as your estimate, but it’s likely to be slightly different depending on the complexity of the sprint and if you run into issues that delay your project timeline

Your actual work line will most likely not be a perfectly straight line once plotted on your burndown chart. It’s normal to see ebbs and flows of effort, as most projects run into some deviations along the way. 

Step 4: Compile the final dataset

The fourth step of creating a burndown chart involves obtaining the final dataset. This data comes from the initial effort estimates and your actual work log from step two.

You can do this by gathering your estimates and comparing them against your logged time. It’s a good idea to keep your logged time in a shared space where team members can access the data throughout the project.

Once you gather the data, you can work on plotting it on your burndown chart to see a visual representation. Using a project management tool like Asana can help automate the process of creating and updating burndown charts, saving you time and effort.

Step 5: Plot the burndown chart

The final step in the process involves plotting your datasets on your burndown chart. You can do this by filling in your estimated effort on the Y-axis. In the example above, this would begin at 80 hours and continue down to 16 hours. On the X-axis, you’ll start with day one and continue to day five. 

Once you’ve completed your story points, you can begin drawing your ideal remaining time and your actual time. These lines will likely look slightly different unless your actual work ends up being the precise effort estimated at the beginning.

Here is an example of what your burndown chart would look like with this example.

[inline illustration] burndown chart plot (example)

As you can see, the actual work line is slightly different from the ideal. The work effort was higher than anticipated at the start but lower than expected at the end. Therefore, while the path was slightly different, the end result was the same.

How to read a burndown chart

Reading and interpreting a burndown chart is essential for understanding the progress and health of your agile project management endeavors. By analyzing the chart's key components and the relationships between them, you can gain valuable insights into your team's progress and make data-driven decisions. In this section, we'll explore how to read a burndown chart effectively, which is an essential skill for any scrum master or project manager.

Understanding the ideal effort line

The ideal effort line represents the expected progress of your project, which is the starting point for the burndown chart. This line starts at the total work estimated effort on the first day of the sprint and slopes downward, reaching zero on the last day. The ideal effort line serves as a benchmark against which you can compare your team's actual progress, helping you assess whether your project plan is on track.

Tracking the actual effort line

The actual effort line depicts the real-world progress of your team, based on the remaining effort for user stories or tasks at the end of each day or iteration. By comparing the actual effort line to the ideal effort line, you can quickly assess whether your team is ahead of schedule, on track, or falling behind. This information is crucial for keeping stakeholders informed and making necessary adjustments to your workflow.

Identifying deviations and their causes

When the actual effort line deviates significantly from the ideal effort line, it indicates that your project is not progressing as expected. If the actual line is consistently above the ideal line, your team is falling behind schedule. Conversely, if the actual line is below the ideal line, your team is progressing faster than anticipated. Identifying these deviations early allows you to investigate the underlying causes, such as issues with teamwork, functionality, or dependencies, and take corrective actions to keep your scrum project on track.

Look for patterns and trends in the actual effort line. A flat or slightly decreasing line suggests that your team is struggling to complete work, which may be due to obstacles, bottlenecks, or an underestimation of tasks. A steep drop in the actual effort line indicates a surge in productivity, often resulting from the resolution of a major issue or the completion of a significant milestone. Recognizing these patterns can help you optimize your software development process and improve your team's overall performance.

Evaluating the projection cone

Some burndown charts, particularly release burndown charts, include a projection cone, which predicts the range of possible completion dates based on the team's current progress. The cone is typically created using best-case and worst-case scenarios. By analyzing the width of the projection cone, you can gauge the level of uncertainty in your project and make informed decisions about resource allocation and risk management, ensuring that your agile project management efforts remain effective.

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How to use burndown charts in Agile and Scrum

Burndown charts are valuable tools in Agile methodology and Scrum frameworks, providing teams with a clear, visual representation of their progress and helping them stay on track. By understanding how to effectively use burndown charts, Agile and Scrum teams can optimize their workflow, improve communication, and deliver high-quality software on time and within budget.

Read: Asana for Agile and Scrum

Burndown charts in Agile methodology

In Agile project management, burndown charts serve as a key metric for tracking the team's progress and identifying potential issues early on. Agile teams use burndown charts to monitor the completion of user stories and tasks throughout the sprint, compare actual progress against the ideal progress line, and identify deviations and their causes, such as scope creep or unexpected blockers.

By incorporating burndown charts into their Agile processes, teams can foster a culture of transparency, accountability, and continuous improvement, facilitating communication and collaboration among team members and stakeholders.

Read: The beginner's guide to Agile methodologies

Burndown charts in Scrum frameworks

In Scrum frameworks, burndown charts play an important role in helping teams manage their work effectively and deliver value to stakeholders. Scrum teams use burndown charts to track the progress of the sprint backlog, ensure that the team is on track to meet the sprint goal, and identify potential risks and impediments that may impact the team's ability to deliver.

Burndown charts also facilitate daily stand-up meetings and sprint retrospectives, providing a visual aid for discussing progress and challenges. They help the Scrum Master and Product Owner make informed decisions about prioritization, resource allocation, and sprint planning while promoting transparency and trust with stakeholders.

Read: What is Scrum? What it is and why it works so well

To effectively use burndown charts in Agile and Scrum, teams should:

  • Ensure that all team members understand how to read and interpret burndown charts.

  • Update the burndown chart regularly, ideally daily, to maintain accuracy and relevance.

  • Use the insights gained from burndown charts to drive meaningful discussions and decision making.

  • Combine burndown charts with other Agile and Scrum metrics and tools, such as velocity, epic and release burndown charts, and sprint backlogs, to gain a comprehensive view of the project's health and progress.

Project management software like Asana offers integrations with these metrics and tools, making it easier to track and analyze your project's performance.

Free Scrum planning template

The benefits of using a burndown chart

A burndown chart is a great way to visualize the work needed to be done versus the time it takes to complete it. This makes it a perfect tool for teams that work in sprints. 

Additional benefits of using a burndown chart include:

  • Shows a direct comparison: A burndown chart shows a direct comparison between the work needed to be done and the effort needed to complete the sprint. This helps teams connect tasks to larger goals and can keep tasks moving on pace with sprint goals. 

  • Keeps teams on the same page: With a daily effort log and a place to visualize the work needed, team members have one source of information that they can track and connect to about the tasks at hand.

  • Gives insight into team productivity: Not only is a burndown chart great at visualizing work, but it can also give you insight into how productive your team is and how quickly they work. If your actual work is drastically different from your ideal, then you can work on helping your team be more productive

These benefits make using a burndown chart an excellent tool for tracking team workload, effort, and productivity. Not to mention, it’s perfect for those who prefer to visualize their tasks and the overall project goals.

Read: 3 visual project management layouts (and how to use them)

Track progress with a burndown chart

Now that you know how to read and use a burndown chart, you can create one of your own. Building your own burndown chart can help connect your team members to one source of data. Using project management apps like Asana can simplify the process of creating and sharing burndown charts with your team, ensuring everyone stays on the same page.

For Scrum teams that work on Agile projects, this can drastically reduce the guesswork of tracking the remaining work left. Not to mention, you’ll be prepared to identify and prevent scope creep before it happens. 

If you’re looking for additional ways to keep your team on the same page and track work, consider a project management tool that can do it all. From connecting tasks to goals to planning templates and everything in between, Asana can help. 

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