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Tips for Creating and Reading a Burndown Chart

Joydip Kanjilal
Published: January 16, 2023

A burndown chart provides a quick and easy way to visualize the progress of any software development project over time, showing the workflow and how much work remains to be done. In this project management tutorial, we will go through what a burndown chart is, and the best practices that should be followed to create and read burndown charts effectively.

What is a Burndown Chart?

Burndown Chart example
Example of a Burndown Chart in

A burndown chart is composed of a vertical axis that represents the total amount of work to be completed and a horizontal axis that shows the timeline in which the project must be completed.

Burndown charts are a visual way to measure the progress of your project and predict its completion date. Typically, burndown charts are used in Agile software development to track progress towards a goal, but they can be used for any type of project where there is a need to track and visualize progress over time.

You can learn more about what a burndown chart is in our tutorial: What is a burndown chart?

How to Read a Burndown Chart

Typically, a burndown chart consists of:

  • The horizontal axis, also known as the X-axis, corresponds to the total amount of time you have at hand to finish the project
  • The vertical axis, also called the Y axis, represents an estimate of the total effort required to finish the project
  • Estimated remaining work to complete the project
  • Story points used to estimate remaining work on the project
  • Ideally, you should also have a sprint goal defined

A burndown chart consists of two metrics: one for the amount of work left to do and the other for elapsed time. In this chart, you will be able to see how much work has been completed, the amount of work that is still pending, (i.e., still needs to be completed), and how much time has elapsed. By tracking progress along both axes, it helps to keep everyone on the same page regarding deadlines, objectives, and timelines for the project.

Creating a Burndown Chart: Estimate Effort and Remaining Time

There are two key elements to creating a burndown chart: estimating the effort required to complete the work, and tracking the actual amount of work completed over time. Estimating effort can be challenging, especially on larger software development projects with many moving parts. Project managers can, however, make use of a few tips to assist you in estimating effort:

  • Break the work down into smaller tasks: This will make it easier to estimate the effort required for each task and also make it easier to track progress over time.
  • Vertical Lines: Draw a vertical line to the left of your canvas to indicate how much work is still outstanding. Story points, tasks, etc., may be used to quantify the remaining work.
  • Horizontal Lines: A horizontal line across the canvas’s bottom might be used to depict how much time is remaining. In the context of time measurement, day, hour, sprint, etc., are all valid units. To plot time units, you should leverage the horizontal axis.
  • Communicate: Talk to those who will be doing the work – they will have a better understanding of what is involved in each task and can provide more accurate estimates.
  • Use historical data: If you have similar projects that have been completed in the past, look at how long those took and use that information to estimate the effort required for the current project.
  • Use estimation tools: There are various estimation tools available online or as software applications that can help with estimating effort, i.e., the story points.

Once you have an estimate of the effort required, you can then use the burndown chart to track the progress of the project over time and make sure that you are on track to completing it as scheduled.

Read: Best Kanban Tools for Developers

Creating a Burndown Chart: Track Daily Progress

First, to track progress on a daily basis means keeping detailed records of how much work is completed each day. You can do that using a simple chart or leverage any tool available online. Secondly, project managers will need to create a separate column in this chart for each day of the sprint and include information on the total amount of work remaining. To do this, simply plot the amount of work remaining each day on the y-axis and the days of the sprint on the x-axis.

Finally, connect the dots so that they represent a line. The slope of this line will give you an indication of how well your team is doing in terms of completing work during the sprint. If the slope is steep, it means that your team is making good progress and is on track to complete all of the work by the end of the sprint.

However, if the slope is shallow or even flat, it means that your team is not making enough progress and may not be able to complete all of the work by the end of the sprint.

Creating a Burndown Chart: Compute the Actual Effort

When project managers create a burndown chart, they need to compute the actual amount of time and effort that was spent on the project. This can be accomplished by keeping track of the number of hours worked each day or by keeping track of the number of tasks completed each day.

To compute the actual effort, start by estimating the total number of hours that will be spent on the project. Now, divide this number by the total number of days that have been spent on the project to determine the average number of hours needed per day.

Next, record your actual daily effort and time. You must revise your estimates if you find you are spending more time on the job than expected. If there is a large discrepancy between the two, then you need to re-evaluate your process for creating burndown charts.

Creating a Burndown Chart: Plot the Burndown

In order to plot the burndown, you will need to gather data on the estimated effort and the actual amount of work completed in the project. You can obtain this data either through project management software by tracking the progress of the project manually.

Once you have this data, you can plot your burndown chart. As the project progresses, you should see the lines on the chart begin to converge. If they do not, it may be an indication that the project is not on track and additional analysis may be needed.

You can learn more about project management software in our guide: Project Management Software for Developers.

Final Thoughts on Burndown Chart Tips

Burndown charts can be extremely helpful in tracking progress and keeping your software development team on track during a sprint. With a well-crafted burndown chart, project managers will be able to assess how far along the project is in terms of completion as well as make decisions on how best to revise certain tasks based on what the graph is telling you.

Read more project management tutorials and project management tool reviews.