What is a burndown chart? (Plus how to use it for data)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 7 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

There might be moments in your working life when you feel that there's only so much time and energy to do what you want to do. An unexpected occurrence can come up that might be inconvenient for your schedule, or you may be too tired to attempt a task. Learning to allocate all the data relative to your work schedule can therefore benefit both your personal and professional life. In this article, we answer the question 'What is a burndown chart?', explain why they're necessary and how they can aid you in your life.

Related: Project scheduling: definition, benefits, formats and steps

What is a burndown chart?

If you're interested in honing your organisational skills, you may have asked the question, 'What is a burndown chart?'. A burndown chart is a graphical representation of your work against the time available. There are times when you require information about your work and the time relative to that work, which a burndown chart can provide visually. Some people work better when they have more understandable data to analyse, helping them maintain a good performance.

A burndown chart is an easy way to understand what some people might call complex working situations and how to pass through them. For instance, a manager might easily analyse the work they're required to do within a week and the budget available in that period by using a burndown chart. Charts of this kind can be effective, as they emphasise what to focus on and how achievable the endeavour is.

Related: A guide to the different types of charts and graphs

An in-depth explanation of a burndown chart

Burndown charts are agile tools that an individual or a group uses to reach a higher level of productivity. The chart, if used effectively, is meant to suggest areas of improvement and how the same or better performance levels are attainable over a shorter time. For example, a company that's taken a long time to perform at a better rate might use a burndown chart to simultaneously improve its timing and performance quicker.

Since burndown charts are graphical depictions that elucidate the necessary work to help you achieve your goals in a specific time frame, they offer a clear picture that communicates better than a long set of written instructions. This is advantageous because many people are better at visual learning.

The visual side of a burndown chart

The main features of a burndown chart are its graphical aspects. Being a form of end-user viewpoint analysis, the tool captures an explanation in picture form of the characteristics of the required work. For each version of the analysis on the burndown chart, there are markers of the cumulative effort made towards the work.

As with most graphs, the burndown chart has a vertical and horizontal axis. The work left in a project is on the scale of the vertical y-axis, whereas the time already passed from the project's conception is on the horizontal x-axis, illustrating both the previous and future work accomplished. You update the burndown chart as the project goes on. When a team or person sees what the chart displays, they're expected to follow a precise schedule to complete the remaining work within the time that's left.

Related: How to communicate visually (with definition and examples)

Variants of a burndown chart

The burndown chart has more than one form, with two variants used for the graph. The first is a sprint burndown, which is meant for operations left in that particular iteration of the burndown chart, while the second is a product burndown used to illustrate the work remaining in the project as a whole. To further understand these differences, a sprint burndown chart is meant for the smaller aspects of the project done in chronological segments, while a product breakdown is for the overall work done.

While the sprint burndown chart has its x and y-axis as the work rate and work still done respectively, a product burndown chart has the sprint numbers on the horizontal axis and the story points of the people involved in the project on the vertical axis. This means a sprint burndown leads to a product burndown and is a subset of the latter. The sprint burndown is normally updated daily, unlike the product burndown, which you update at further intervals.

Related: What is an epic in Agile (With definition and examples)

The reading and understanding of a burndown chart

The two main parts of a burndown chart are the vertical and horizontal axes. The x-axis is read as the time portion, representing the total work timeline or time used and remaining for that sprint iteration. In contrast, the y-axis charts the work-related portion of story point estimates or overall work necessary to complete the project.

The starting value of the project is to the farthest point on the left of the graph, and this is meant for the first day of the plan or the start of the overall task. Consequentially, the end is to the extreme right, pointing to the last day of the project or particular iteration for that day.

Ideal work remaining line

The ideal working line is a straight line drawn from the start to the endpoint. The line shows the sum of iterations and completed tasks. When the line crosses the horizontal axis at the endpoint, it means there's no more work left. Due to the line being dependent on estimates, the ideal working line isn't always correct.

The actual work remaining line

Unlike the ideal line, this line isn't a straight one. Instead, it fluctuates as the project goes on. At the start of the work, the two lines begin on the starting point, but as time passes and work continues, the actual work remaining line fluctuates above and below the straight ideal remaining line. The work line adds a new point each day to make it as accurate as possible for the sprint and the project as a whole.

When reading a burndown chart, you consciously note if the actual work line is above the ideal remaining line. If it is, then the task requires more work than initially projected. Alternatively, if the actual remaining line is below the ideal work line, it means there's more work already being done than originally projected. Summarily, the actual work line being above the ideal work line means the work is behind schedule, but the actual work line being below means it's ahead of schedule.

The advantages of a burndown chart

The advantages of using a burndown chart as opposed to not using one include:

  • Regular status report: An advantage of a burndown chart is that it enables you to see a graphical illustration of your progress, or the progress of your team, sequentially as the project goes on. Daily updates enable your team to know what to improve upon and inform them if they're behind schedule, causing them to increase their working pace.

  • Maintains cohesion: When teams use burndown charts, the visual mode of the display makes it clear and concise for everybody involved in the project to see what's working and what isn't. If issues arise, team members can resolve them before they worsen.

  • Ease of understanding: Burndown charts are easy to understand and learn how to use. Since the graph is a visual expression of the project and has only a small number of parts, it makes evident the overall work, time, effort and pace that's necessary to continue in a way that everybody can understand.

Related: How to be organised at work (plus benefits and tips)

The disadvantages of a burndown chart

Although a burndown chart seems impervious, some of its issues can cause problems for a team. Below are some of the disadvantages of using this type of chart:

  • It can't show everything: The burndown chart only reveals the number of finished story points. It cannot account for the deviations in the scale of the work or the goals of the project as ascertained by the overall points.

  • Uncertainty: Due to the chart's inability to allocate everything, the reason for some dips in performance might be unclear. It's difficult to determine if the changes occurring in the chart are because of the backlog or the story points, for instance.

  • Over-reliance on positive estimates: If you don't enforce the efficiency factor into the analysis of the visual graph, there might also be an issue of accuracy. The entire chart's accuracy depends on the initial estimates given by the time, so if you overestimate the time, it makes the work look ahead of schedule, and if you underestimate it, it makes the work look behind schedule.

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