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].

Components of a burndown chart

The following elements collectively make up a burndown chart:

  • Horizontal axis: The x-axis in a burndown chart represents time, illustrating a project's or sprint's duration. 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 the overall performance of your team.

Types of burndown charts

The sprint burndown chart and the product burndown chart are two popular forms of burndown charts used in Agile projects. Let's 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.


How to create a burndown chart

Businesses routinely utilize burndown charts to foster collaboration among project stakeholders and beneficiaries. Here’s 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, creating a comparison between 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.

Get started in project management

Gain deeper insight into project management with the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate on Coursera. Build the skills you need for an entry-level role in project management as you learn at your own pace from the experts at Google.

Article sources

  1. International Scrum Institute. “Scrum burndown chart, https://www.scrum-institute.org/Burndown_Chart.php.” Accessed May 17, 2023.

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