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A no-nonsense guide to creating your first burndown chart

monday.com 8 min read
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To achieve success with your project, there are a couple of things you must get right. Timing is no exception.

If you can’t complete your project within the estimated time frame, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your project is. It can lead to catastrophic 2nd-order events like cost overruns or contractual disputes.

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Hence, managers need different ways to measure and optimize their team’s time.

Burndown charts are one of those ways.

And in this guide, we’ll give you a simple, step-by-step roadmap for creating your first burndown chart.

What is a burndown chart?

Burndown charts are simple graphs that help you measure a project’s progress against time. In addition to letting you know how much work and time you have remaining, they help you forecast when you’ll get a project done and present this visually.

These charts are widely used by Scrum masters and Scrum teams in their Scrum projects and in agile software development project management. They have recently been incorporated into the PMP (Project Management Professional) exam as well.

What are the parts of a burndown chart?

Before we get too deep, let’s define a few key terms:

Ideal work line or ideal work remaining line: the straight line that connects the start point to the endpoint. At the start point, the ideal line shows the sum of the estimates for all the (work) that needs to be completed. At the endpoint, the ideal line intercepts the x-axis, showing that there is no work left to be completed.

Actual work remaining line: the name speaks for itself here. At the start point, the actual work remaining is the same as the ideal work remaining but as time progresses, the actual work line will fluctuate above and below the ideal line depending on this disparity between estimates and team efficiency.

Each day, the sum of the time or story point estimates for work that was recently completed is subtracted from the last point in the line to determine the next point.

X-axis: the horizontal axis that indicates time

Y-axis: the vertical axis that represents remaining work to be done in a sprint

What does a burndown chart look like?

A typical burndown chart looks like this:

burndown chart example

They commonly are split into 2 categories: product burndown charts and sprint burndown charts.

Though they’re pretty similar, like the way they help expose scope creep, but they are distinct in their purposes.

Product burndown chart

In short, product burndown charts show you the big picture of your product backlog and your overall project progress.

To create this chart, you should graph the total amount of work remaining in the product backlog and plot it as a bar graph at the start of each sprint.

In the example below, the team completed 4 sprints.

As the team completes work, the height of the bar graph is reduced. Product burndown chart example

The difference in bar heights between sprints indicates the amount of work your team completed from the product backlog.

Based on this, you can forecast a trend line and predict a final deadline.

Product burndown chart extrapolation

Sprint burndown chart

Sprint burndown charts are the most common type and are used to track the total work remaining in the sprint backlog and forecast the probability of achieving the sprint’s goal.

By “micro-managing” activities at this level, teams can spot and solve potential delays and issues before they turn into bigger problems.

This is the most common type of burndown chart and helps teams understand the main reasons you’re getting out of track or what you’re doing right to be ahead of schedule.

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In short, sprint burndown charts help you focus on the timely delivery of the sprint.

If you have to complete 7 tasks over the next 7 days, your burndown chart might look like this:

Sprint burndown chart example

As you can see, we have 2 series of data: time and quantity of work (user stories, tasks, etc.).

A diagonal line (in this case, the yellow one) called a “guideline” represents the ideal rate you should work at to complete tasks in time. It’s based on the agile principle of working at a consistent pace.

Finally, the red line (actual work line) indicates the work you’ve done.

In simple words, when the red line goes below the “guideline,” it means you’re ahead of schedule. If it goes above it, it means the project is delayed or falling behind.

So, in this example, if your team is able to deliver one task each day, you’ll be on schedule.

However, we can see that from day 1 to day 3, the team didn’t complete any tasks. So, the first few days this team was off schedule.

Delayed sprint burndown chart

But, as they sped up work, they were closer to the guideline (yellow line) and, by day 5, they were even ahead of schedule.

Example of a sprint burndown chart that's ahead of schedule

This is a simple example, but you can see how easy it is to visualize your timing with this kind of chart.

Burndown vs. burnup charts

Burndown and burnup charts are pretty similar, but each gives slightly different information.

As we covered earlier, burndown charts compare how much time remains against outstanding work.

A burnup chart, on the other hand, is used to track how much work has been completed and plots the remaining amount of work for a project or iteration. Because of this structure, they’re great for highlighting scope changes.

Here’s an example:

Burnup chart example

(Image Source)

The blue line represents the overall scope to complete and the red line shows progress so far.

How to create a burndown chart in Excel

Now that you understand what a burndown chart is, we’ll use Excel to walk you through creating one:

Step 1: Create a table with your data

You need a three-column table with the following information:

Three-column table for creating a burndown chart.

Column A: Calendar

Here you’ll include the time frame for your sprint or task. In this example, we started on December 1st, but you should include your project’s actual start date.

Column B: Estimate

In this column, you’ll include the estimated number of tasks/activities remaining to complete each day. Eventually, the number should be zero.

Column C: Actual

Finally, column C will include the actual work remaining to complete each day.

Step 2: Create your burndown chart

To create your burndown chart, select all the information from your table. Then, go to “Insert” and select this drop-down menu:

Excel graphs drop down menu

From the list of charts, select “Line with markers.”

Excel's line chart with markers

Excel will create your burndown chart automatically.

Excel's burndown screenshot

As you update progress on the “Actual” column, you’ll see the orange line moving across.

Burndown chart tutorial

Are burndown charts enough?

Burndown charts are just one of the many tools available for schedule forecasting, and they work pretty well.

But what happens if the product owner introduces new work into the product backlog? What happens if your team re-estimates work? How do you account for these changes?

Unfortunately, these charts are limited in presenting the full scope of changing conditions faced by most teams.

Imagine your remaining scope is 40 tasks, and then suddenly a client request bumps it up to 55 tasks. Your team worked really hard and burned through 20 tasks this week. But because of the increase of 15, your chart makes it look like they only accomplished 5 things.

This inability to show the ‘why’ behind the numbers makes a burndown chart misleading when presented independently, without context.

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What’s monday.com?

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monday.com is a Work OS that helps teams across any industry to plan, organize, and manage projects from start to finish.

In fact, more than 100,000 organizations — including Uber, Costco, and Adobe — trust us to manage their teams and projects.

Here are some alternatives we offer.

monday.com’s burndown chart alternatives

We have 8 different data visualizations you can use to transform data into actionable insights: Timeline, Gantt, Kanban, Calendar, Map, and more.

monday.com's Timeline view screenshot

You can filter items by group, status, or owner. This grouping allows you to better allocate resources because you can easily see everyone’s workload.

Additionally, you can even export your timeline to excel and easily turn it into a burndown chart—and that’s just scratching the surface.

For example, with our free sprint planning template, you can easily track and manage your iterations.

monday.com's sprint planning template screenshot

This fully customizable template can be adapted to your needs in minutes.

We have other useful templates for an agile team, too:

You can view a complete list of our 200+ templates here.

Burnin’ down the chart

Timing will always play a crucial role in your project management success.

Burndown charts are meant to help your team spot and solve potential delays before they start snowballing. But they’re not the only tool for the job and not even the best one in our not-so-humble opinion.

Take a couple of minutes with this guide and create your first burndown chart. When you’re ready for more, try out our simple template for scrum planning.

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