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How is a burndown chart used in Agile development?

Agile development teams are experimenting with various tools and processes to find what works best in their particular situation. In this expert response, Lisa Crispin explains what a burndown chart is, and how it can serve as a useful tracking tool over several iterations in the Agile development process.

Can you explain the concept of a burndown chart?

A burndown chart for an iteration tracks the amount of work the team has left to complete, based on its original estimates, compared with a line drawn from the original amount planned to zero over the days of the iteration. It provides a way to visually track how work is proceeding compared with the original estimate. The chart provides warning signs, for example, the burndown line remains level because no tasks are being completed, or the line goes UP because tasks were needed that weren’t originally anticipated.

Some teams analyze the patterns of their burndown charts over several iterations to see if they might need to try some experiments to change their burndown. For example, if the line consistently goes down, then up near the end of the iteration, then down again, perhaps the team is working on too many stories at one time. If there are unexpected tasks needed in several stories at once, the team will burn “up” instead of down. By focusing on finishing one story at a time, the burndown may track more consistently in the right direction.

Some organizations make a release- or theme-level burndown chart which tracks the amount of work for several iterations, from start to finish of a release or theme. This may help the managers and business stakeholders have confidence about whether all the planned work can be delivered by the target release date, or whether they’ll have to cut scope and reset customer expectations.

Big visible charts are a powerful tool for any team. When we make our process and progress transparent, we’ll be able to identify problems quickly and make corrections to keep ourselves on track. When my own team identifies a problem or impediment in a retrospective, we try to think of some way to make it visible, so we can work on overcoming it. Burndown charts are just one of many useful big visible charts that help Agile teams.

Experiment with burndown charts and other visible tracking tools, and see what works best for your team. You might need different ways of tracking progress as your team improves its process and practices over time.

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