What is a Burndown Chart and What Does it Tell Me?

© 2012 William Patrick Swisher

Burndown charts are a highly effective tool for monitoring progress during a sprint. There are a variety of ways to create this chart including:

  • Tracking the remaining hours for unfinished tasks.
  • Tracking the number of unfinished tasks.
  • Tracking the number of completed backlog items within a sprint.
  • Tracking the sum of story points earned within a sprint.

Assuming a Scrum Team breaks down backlog items into tasks and each day reports on remaining hours for those tasks, the resulting burndown chart can provide a nice visual of the team’s trajectory towards being finished with all sprint work. Here’s what a typical burndown chart would look like:

You’ll notice the red dotted line starting at the top left and traversing to the bottom right of the chart. That’s the “ideal burndown line” or “guideline” that provides a simple guide to how much work ought to be completed each day in order to finish everything at the end of the sprint.

The team’s progress, as measured by remaining hours, tends to decrease over the course of the sprint. There can be interesting patterns, some of which are cause for concern whereas others are not. In the following example the burndown line starts to turn upwards mid-sprint. The Scrum Team should identify what’s causing the uptick and how they might address it so that they can complete all sprint work in the remaining days.

However, if the upward trend was very early in the sprint, this may simply be a result of the team discovering more tasks or an increase in hours for existing tasks. The Scrum Master should watch the trend and if it continues to climb, the team can have a conversation about how to address it.

On the other hand, if the burndown line is headed to zero much quicker than the guideline, the Product Owner should make sure the Product Backlog’s top items are ready for possible selection into the sprint as the team will be looking for work soon.

In general the burndown chart is a basic gauge used for measuring progress and should spark conversations when problem patterns appear.

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