Burn up and burndown charts offer a straightforward way to track your team’s work and stay on task with at-a-glance reminders and accountability. For project managers, these charts make it easy to compare actual work completed against goals and timelines.
Since burn up and burndown charts are subtly different from each other, they can be put to use for different types of projects and use cases.
What is a burn up chart?
A burn up chart shows a team’s project progress over time—at a glance, project managers and team members can see if the project is still on schedule. Agile methodology often uses visuals such as burn up charts to communicate work progress visually to make developing estimates easier. Using a straight line that moves diagonally up the graph, burn up charts are great for emphasizing the progress a team already made. Another line representing the project’s scope serves as a benchmark for measuring progress.
The y-axis (vertical axis) shows work and the x-axis (horizontal axis) shows project time. As progress is made on the project, a completed work line reflects how much work is finished at each milestone. The total work line stands in for the project scope.
Using this type of chart, you can plan your project by:
- Breaking down sprints by work completed: Using points, you can specifically quantify the amount of work your team finished during that time period.
- Comparing finished work against scope: To see where the project is compared with where your scope dictates, all you have to do is use the work line and completed line.
- Motivating your team with overall progress: The burn up chart logs increasing progress on the way to reaching the scope, which is a great way to show your team how productive they’ve been throughout the project.
What is a burndown chart?
Similar to a burn up chart, a burndown chart is used by agile project managers to graph the progress made by the team during a project, but burndown charts depict the amount of work and time left for the project’s duration. Two lines, one showing an ideal rate of progress and another showing actual progress, start at the same beginning point and progress downward over time.
Your team’s work burns down until the project is over, reaching zero as the sprint ends. At that point, both the time for the project and the work itself have elapsed and completed.
The y-axis (vertical axis) shows work to be completed. The x-axis (horizontal axis) represents the overall timeline. As much as we’d all like for our planning to always go perfectly, sometimes there’s a gap between what the team completes and the ideal completion rate. Burndown charts depict this gap using ideal and actual work lines.
With a burndown chart, you can:
- Create team accountability: Burndown charts help teams focus on what work is left vs. the remaining time, encouraging accountability for the entire project.
- Define on-time completion: Ideal and actual work lines remove ambiguity during phases of the project where the schedule and timelines are otherwise obscured or confusing.
- Adjust estimation and planning: Through experience and experimenting with a burndown chart, you can develop and improve your internal processes for planning future projects.
Using a burn up vs. burndown chart
On paper, burn up and burndown charts may seem like identical concepts, and although they are similar, in practice their differences lend themselves to different use cases. The crucial difference is how the timeline is defined.
Burn up charts start at zero, while burndown charts move towards zero. For this reason, burndown charts essentially presume a deadline. Burn up charts don’t emphasize the deadline but focus on what was accomplished so far as time passed. You can use this to your advantage, choosing a chart based on the type of project you’re working on, the stakeholders involved, and other factors.
Burn up chart use cases
Burn up charts feature an open-ended timeline by default since they track elapsed time instead of counting down to zero. As such, you can use a burn up chart to track your projects that are a bit more flexible, have a lot of dependencies, or are relatively complex–situations where the timeline and scope could be subject to change during the project.
Burndown chart use cases
If you are working with a finite, highly specific timeline, a burndown chart can help you identify and troubleshoot problems early. Any disruption impacting the timeline, whether it places you ahead or behind schedule, will show up as a difference between the lines.
With a burndown chart, since you’re counting down both time and work, scope changes will show up as weak productivity. A project with a lot of uncertainty, possible adjustments, and external influences could be a bad fit for a burndown chart.
Choosing a burn up chart vs. burndown chart
Using what you know about your project, create a chart for your next sprint and keep track of how well it works for your team. Be sure to invite input from other project members. Before getting started, you could ask if they anticipate scope changes or other issues that might influence what chart type you use.
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