Burn Down Chart Tutorial: Simple Agile Project Tracking

For me, going from a non-agile development methodology to an agile one should have been simple.  I had read the articles, attended the seminars, and knew the theory.  However, what I did not have was a basic template for project tracking throughout an iteration. This article provides that template with the burn down chart shown below being the end goal.  The only tool we need is a spreadsheet.*

Burn down chart

*Note: A hosted spreadsheet is ideal since all your team members can update it at the same time (see the Tools section at the end for more details).

Excerpt From: Burn Down Chart Tutorial: Simple Agile Task Tracking Get the templates at http://joel.inpointform.net
Author: Joel Wenzel

Eventually I became frustrated with Gantt charts. Sure, they had served me reasonably well for a number of years but I had a few problems with them. First, I found them time consuming to maintain whenever changes to a task’s timeline occurred. Second, the charts require tasks to be put in some sort of order at the beginning of an iteration which often isn’t representative of when tasks will actually be preformed. Third, Gantt chart project management software included so many extra features that just creating and maintaining basic charts seemed to require some sort of certification. I longed for something simpler.

The solution for me was to use burn down charts. It is just a graph that shows how much time is left in a project vs how much work is left to be done (as shown below). This article provides an overview on how to effectively create and manage burn down charts using nothing but a spreadsheet.


Figure 1: Burn down chart


If you have heard of burn down charts before, then likely it was in the context of agile software development. In this article, I will try to describe burn down charts in a manner such that they can be applied to a number of different types of projects, not just software projects.

One term to be familiar with is iteration. In a software project, an iteration refers to a set period of time where the various stages of the software development process are preformed to provide some sort of release. Iterations are preformed over and over, each time refining the product closer to a final release. However, in the context of this article, an iteration will just be a specific amount of time with an assigned set of tasks.

Reading Burn Down Charts

Burn down charts provide a method to track your progress on a daily basis. The axis on the left shows the remaining effort required to complete the iteration and the axis on the bottom contains the number of days until the iteration deadline. The remaining effort is determined by summing the time estimates for incomplete tasks.

In figure 1, the blue line shows the ideal scenario if your team performs exactly as predicted by your task estimates and the red line shows the actual performance. At day 0 (the first day of the iteration), the remaining effort is at its highest because nothing has been completed. At the end of the iteration (day 20), the sum should be 0 because there are no tasks left to be completed.

You want the red line (your team’s actual performance) to be close to the blue line. When it is above the blue line, then your team is behind schedule and when it is below the blue line, your team is ahead of schedule.


Figure 2: Chart showing areas above the blue line as being behind schedule and below the blue line as being ahead of schedule

If the actual remaining effort line is above the blue line for an extended period, then it means adjustments have to be made to the project. This could mean dropping a task, assigning additional resources, or working late, all of which can be unpleasant but because of the burn down chart, at least you can deal with it sooner rather than just before a deadline.

Not only are burn down charts intuitive to read, but they also require no adjustments when task scheduling changes which makes them easy to maintain as well. Priority and task start/end dates are never referenced when generating the graph so within an iteration, task priority and start/end dates can be changed without affecting the burn down chart at all. This significantly reduces the amount of time spent spent on adjustments when compared to other progress tracking methods.

Creating a Burn Down Chart…

Get the templates and read the rest of the the tutorial at joel.inpointform.net