What Is a Burndown Chart?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Delve into the core principles behind a burndown chart, a graphic depiction of the time and effort needed to finish a software project.

[Featured image] A project management team looks at a burndown chart for a project.

A burndown chart is a graphical representation of the work remaining versus time in a project or sprint. It helps visualize progress by showing how much work is left to be completed and whether the team is on track to meet their goals within the allotted time. Through chart analysis, Agile teams can identify potential schedule setbacks, investigate reasons for delays, and implement strategies to enhance efficiency.

The International Scrum Institute defines the burndown chart as “a visual measurement tool that shows the completed work per day against the projected rate of completion for the current project release” [1].

Learn more: Project Management Terms: A to Z Glossary

Components of a burndown chart

Burndown charts are comprised of two axes as well as lines that represent the ideal and actual work that needs to be accomplished. You might also include additional elements, such as your starting point, a sprint marker to note the current date, and completed work. The following are the main elements that collectively make up a burndown chart:

  • Horizontal axis: The x-axis in a burndown chart represents time, illustrating the duration of a project or sprint. Essentially, the x-axis provides a chronological timeline.

  • Vertical axis: The y-axis represents the remaining work and is generally quantified using units like story points, tasks, or hours. The y-axis shows the cumulative workload remaining at each point in time. As the project or sprint advances, the work remaining should ideally decrease, forming a downward trend on the chart.

  • Estimated work remaining: The ideal or estimated work remaining is a straight line on the graph, starting from the highest point on the y-axis to the lowest point on the x-axis. The ideal line touching the x-axis at its endpoint is an indicator of task completion. This line represents the average daily progress needed to meet the project goal within the set timeframe.

  • Actual work remaining: The actual work remaining is a line on the burndown chart representing the current remaining work, which may differ from the initial estimate. This line often follows a non-linear path due to unanticipated project challenges. When the actual tasks line surpasses the estimated tasks line, it signifies being ahead of schedule. Notably, this line serves as a guide to gauging your team's overall performance.

Types of burndown charts

The sprint burndown chart and the product burndown chart are two popular forms of burndown charts used in Agile projects. Take a look at each: 

  • Sprint burndown charts offer a visual representation of the progress made by an Agile team during a particular sprint, typically ongoing. 

  • Product burndown charts provide a visual representation of the overall progress of the project, showcasing the number of product or project goals accomplished by the team and the remaining work within the project.

In summary, the sprint burndown chart is specific to a sprint, while the product burndown chart reflects the progress of the entire project.

Burndown chart vs. burnup chart: What's the difference?

Burnup charts track completed work, while burndown charts monitor remaining work. The number of lines in charts differs too. Burndown charts have two lines: expected work remaining and actual work completed. However, burnup charts can have up to three lines: project scope, actual work completed, and expected progress.


Burndown chart pros and cons

Overall, burndown charts are a valuable tool for Agile project management, but it's important to be aware of their limitations to determine if another tool would be more valuable to your project scope. Used effectively, they can help improve team communication, identify issues early, and keep projects on track.

Benefits of burndown charts

  • Visualizes progress: Burndown charts provide a clear and easy-to-understand visual representation of project progress. By looking at the slope of the line, you can quickly see if your team is on track to complete the work within the allotted time. Seeing the line trend downwards can be motivating for the team, as it shows progress and the decreasing amount of work remaining.

  • Improves transparency: These charts foster transparency within the team and with stakeholders. Everyone can see the remaining work and how quickly it's being completed, allowing for adjustments if necessary. Stakeholders can easily understand the progress without needing to give attention to the details of the project.

  • Promotes collaboration: Burndown charts can encourage collaboration and communication within the team. Daily or regular updates to the chart can spark discussions about potential roadblocks and how to overcome them.

  • Helps identify issues early: Deviations from the ideal burndown line can signal potential problems early on. This allows the team to take corrective action before issues escalate and derail the project.

  • Focuses on delivery: Since a burndown chart visually tracks the completion of milestones or sprints, it helps ensure the team remains focused on delivering in each iteration. It assists in managing scope creep by providing a clear picture of the amount of work that remains versus the time left.

Limitations of burndown charts

  • Simplicity can be limiting: Burndown charts can oversimplify complex projects. They don't capture the nuances of project work, such as task dependencies, task complexity, quality of work, or unexpected challenges.

  • Focuses on completion, not quality: The emphasis on completing tasks to stay on track can sometimes lead to a focus on quantity over quality. Teams might rush through tasks to meet deadlines reflected on the chart.

  • Accuracy relies on estimates: The effectiveness of a burndown chart relies on accurate estimates of the effort required for each task. Inaccurate estimates can skew the chart and mislead the team.

  • Not applicable to all projects: Burndown charts may not be suitable for all types of projects. They work best for projects with well-defined tasks and predictable timelines.

How to create a burndown chart

Businesses routinely utilize burndown charts to foster collaboration among project stakeholders and beneficiaries. The following is a breakdown of steps you can take to create an effective burndown chart:

1. Determine the scope of your project.

By evaluating the effort (work to be done) and time needed for each iteration of a project, you can define the project's scope. For instance, if you have a six-month deadline for a project, dividing it into 12 two-week sprints enables you to track progress on the burndown chart and stay on top of the project's timeline.

2. Estimate the project’s time requirements.

You can estimate the time required to complete a project successfully through story points and project scope. Take into account your team’s historical project performance analysis. This approach improves the reliability of the burndown chart by ensuring accurate calculation of time requirements.

3. Mark data points on the chart.

Using a spreadsheet or grid system, such as Excel or Google Sheets, plot your burndown chart by marking the estimated time or number of sprints on the horizontal x-axis and story points on the vertical y-axis. Draw a straight line for the estimated tasks remaining from the highest point on the y-axis to the lowest point on the x-axis. 

4. Track and update project progress.

Monitor your project’s progress regularly and plot it against the remaining work, comparing the estimated and actual work done. 

5. Iterate and refine.

Continuously refine the chart and the estimation process based on feedback and lessons learned from previous iterations.

Learn more: 5 Project Management Software Picks

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Article sources

  1. International Scrum Institute. “Scrum burndown chart, https://www.scrum-institute.org/Burndown_Chart.php.” Accessed June 25, 2024.

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