The Beauty of the Burndown Chart

May 16, 2012

The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words“ fits very well with the subtle meaning of the burndown chart. In waterfall, it is almost impossible to illustrate progress of the project with one picture. Some might show those grant chart with % completion but we all know that it is nothing but a pure guess, mostly a bad one.

The release burndown chart lets the team discover their plan, rather than just using the typical poor prediction. This is possible because Agile chops the requirement down into small and consumable chunks of working software like user stories and use relative-size-estimation like points. In the typical waterfall grant chart, your 50% done is just something you make up sometimes just to make it look impressive. I was a project manager in such context and I did put 90% in many of the tasks in my MS Project and they stayed at that status for a very long time so I had to bump them up to 95% to avoid the impression that nothing was done. In fact, a lot of things were done but real values were not delivered. When you have small consumable requirement, when it is done, it is really done then the progress in your burndown chart is the real progress. Agile measures progress with working software, not feeling.

A waterfall project manager often have “baseline” plan vs “current” plan. It would be fine to show this in grant chart if there is only one revision of the current plan. In real project, scope changes all the time and you may end up with countless of revisions! The super nice thing about the burndown chart is it captures this very well. That is the inner beauty of the burndown chart.

The picture below is from the classic Mike’s Cohn Estimating and Planning where 30 points are added at the end of iteration 2 making the projection of the finish time changes from iteration 8 to iteration 10.

The graph below is the real burndown taken from a projected tracked with the original Eidos. You can see that in the real project, scope is added “all the time” but Agile allows you to clearly visualize this with burndown chart and tell you right away how the change might impact the plan. Eidos makes your life even simpler by automatically plot it for you.

Before I join Proteus Agility to create the new Eidos, I was obsessed with how to present burndown chart in our PowerPoint in my years of leading project management team. We tried several ways but I have to say that I am very impressed with original Eidos burndown chart! It is a real beauty. The green Real Progress and the grey Estimate Progression is basically the implementation of what described in Cohn’s classic book. Also, there are bar graphs showing snapshots of your backlog in each iteration with Stories Remaining in blue, Un-estimated Stories in white, and Stories Added in yellow. If you wonder how come those un-estimated stories have size, it is because we do our best to guess it based on your history. We can just ignore them but showing the un-estimated stories right in your face reminds you that you have a few planning sessions to do.

Currently, we are working on the new design of Eidos UI including the burndown chart. We are not sure what it will look like once it is released but currently it looks something like this.

Stay tuned…