Burndown Charts

Erez Morabia
8 min readNov 29, 2023

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A burndown chart is a visual tool commonly used in Agile to track the progress of a team, a product, or an organization toward completing a set of tasks within a specified time frame, typically a sprint. The chart provides a graphical representation of the work completed versus the work remaining, allowing teams to assess their performance and make informed decisions to meet their goals.

There are various types of burndown charts, including individual sprint burndown charts, release burndown charts, and feature-level burndown charts. We will review the most common ones in this post.

Team Sprint Burndown

A Sprint Burndown is a visual representation of a team’s progress in completing planned work throughout a sprint in Agile development, typically showing the remaining effort against time. The main trend to observe is the downward slope of the burndown chart, which represents the decreasing amount of work remaining in the sprint over time. As the team completes tasks and user stories, the burndown chart should trend downwards.

Jira Burndown Chart

A step-down in the chart indicates a sudden decrease in work remaining. This could signify that a significant task or user story has been completed and is no longer part of the remaining work. It’s a positive sign of progress. Conversely, a step-up indicates that additional work has been added to the sprint. This might occur due to new tasks being identified, scope changes, or unplanned work. While not inherently negative, it’s essential to understand and manage the reasons behind any step-up.

The chart typically includes an ideal burndown line, representing the ideal progress if work is completed at a consistent rate. Deviations between the actual burndown and the ideal line can offer insights into whether the team is ahead or behind schedule.

A flatline or plateau in the chart suggests that the team is not making progress. This could be due to impediments, resource constraints, or underestimated work. It prompts the team to investigate and take corrective actions. If the actual burndown line is consistently below the ideal line, it indicates that the team is completing work faster than expected. This could be a positive sign but also warrants scrutiny to ensure that quality is maintained. Conversely, if the actual burndown line consistently lags behind the ideal line, it suggests that the team is behind schedule. This requires a closer examination of the reasons for the delay and adjustments to the sprint plan.

Regularly analyzing Sprint Burndown Charts allows teams to learn from each sprint. They can identify patterns, understand their velocity, and make informed adjustments to future sprint planning and execution.

Step Down Configuration

When configuring a tool like Jira, it is recommended to set it up so that each step down in the burndown chart represents a delivery, meaning a backlog item is marked as Done. This is in contrast to a step down indicating effort invested/remained (such as the ‘log work’ concept in Jira). When a step down reflects partial work on a backlog item, it becomes challenging to use the burndown chart to understand whether the team is on or off track towards its goal.

For instance, the burndown chart might indicate that the team is ‘on track’ even though they haven’t completed a single backlog item. This can happen if, say, 90% of each backlog item is completed, but none of them have actually reached Done. Moreover, in software engineering, the best way to track the progress of a backlog item is when it has been delivered. Therefore, having each step down in the burndown chart represent the completion of a backlog item provides a clearer and more accurate picture of the team’s progress.

Complementary Nature of Jira Burnup and Burndown Charts

Burnup and burndown charts are both essential tools, each offering unique insights into the progress of a product. While the burndown chart focuses on the amount of work remaining, the burnup chart provides a clear view of work completed against the total scope of the project.

Jira Burnup Chart

This chart shows both the amount of work completed and the total scope of the sprint. Together, burndown and burnup charts give a comprehensive view of product health. The burndown chart highlights whether the team is meeting its targets, while the burnup chart shows the cumulative progress and how scope changes impact the project timeline.

In a Jira burnup chart, the red and green lines play crucial roles in conveying the progress and scope of the project:

  • Green Line (Work Completed): This line represents the amount of work completed over time. As tasks or backlog items are marked as Done, the green line rises, showing cumulative progress.
  • Red Line (Total Scope): This line represents the total scope of the project, including all planned tasks or backlog items. If there are changes to the scope, such as adding or removing tasks, the red line adjusts accordingly.

By analyzing the green and red lines together, teams can better understand their progress in the context of the overall sprint scope.

Scaled Up Sprint Burndown

While the team burndown chart is the most common in agile product management, it’s important to note that burndown charts can be versatile and scalable, accommodating larger and more complex organizational structures. A classic illustration of this scalability is the incorporation of multiple teams within a single burndown chart.

Burndown of 15 teams over 10 products

Consider, for instance, a scenario where several teams collaboratively contribute to the development of a shared product. In this context, a sprint burndown chart can elegantly capture the combined efforts and progress of these diverse teams, providing a holistic view of the product’s delivery progress. This approach fosters transparency and enhances the ability to identify any potential bottlenecks or areas that may require additional attention.

In essence, the adaptability of burndown charts ensures their relevance in various contexts, from a micro-level focus on individual teams and products to a macro-level perspective that spans the entire organizational landscape. This flexibility not only aligns with the diverse needs of agile practitioners but also contributes to a comprehensive understanding of progress and productivity across different scales.

Epic Burndown

An Epic burndown chart in Agile is a visual representation that tracks the progress of completing a large and complex work item known as an “Epic.” In agile development, an Epic is a sizable body of work that is too extensive to be completed in a single iteration or sprint. It is often broken down into smaller, more manageable user stories or tasks for implementation.

Jira Epic Burndown

Release Burndown

A release burndown chart in Agile is a visual representation that tracks the progress of completing a set of features or user stories planned for a specific release. It provides a snapshot of the work remaining versus time, allowing agile teams and stakeholders to understand how well they are progressing toward the overall release goal.

Jira Release Burndown Chart
Jira Version Report Chart

Decision-Making with Burndown Charts

Burndown charts can be instrumental in various aspects of decision-making:

  1. Progress Tracking:
    Burndown charts provide a visual representation of the remaining work (usually measured in story points or tasks) throughout a sprint or project. This helps teams and stakeholders quickly assess how much work has been completed and how much is left.
  2. Predicting Completion Dates:
    By analyzing the slope of the burndown chart, teams can estimate when the remaining work will be completed. This aids in making predictions about whether the team(s) is on track to meet its goals within the specified timeframe. This information is crucial for planning and can influence decisions such as resource allocation and scope adjustments.
  3. Identifying Issues and Roadblocks:
    Sudden deviations or unexpected plateaus in the burndown chart may indicate potential issues or roadblocks. For example, if the burndown rate slows unexpectedly, it might suggest that the team is facing challenges, such as dependencies, impediments, or underestimated tasks. This information enables quick identification and resolution of issues, helping teams stay on course.
  4. Scope Management:
    Burndown charts can help teams and stakeholders understand the impact of scope changes during a sprint or project. If new tasks are added or existing ones are removed, the burndown chart allows teams to see how these changes affect the overall progress and make informed decisions about adjusting priorities or timelines.
  5. Continuous Delivery:
    Trends in the burndown chart can also reflect the efficiency and effectiveness of the team delivery. Consistent, smooth progress is a positive sign, while unpredictable or not-progressing charts may indicate areas for improvement. This information can guide decisions related to training, process adjustments, or team restructuring.
  6. Communication and Transparency:
    Burndown charts are excellent communication tools. They provide a transparent view of the team’s progress to all stakeholders, fostering collaboration and alignment. This transparency helps in making collective decisions based on real-time data, ensuring that everyone involved has a shared understanding of the delivery status.

Conclusion

Burndown charts stand as indispensable tools in the agile methodology, offering teams a dynamic and visual means to track their progress, manage work effectively, and make informed decisions. From sprint burndown charts that focus on the complex details of individual teams to release and epic burndown charts that provide a holistic view of high-level goals, these graphs empower agile practitioners with the clarity needed to navigate the complexities of iterative development.

Burndown charts facilitate decision-making by offering a clear and visual representation of progress, enabling predictions, highlighting potential issues, aiding in scope management, assessing team performance, and fostering communication and transparency among team members and stakeholders. Those are among the many advantages that make burndown charts an integral part of the agile toolkit.

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