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Using Release Burndown Charts for efficient software development

Software development and predictable results go together about as well as safe investments and casinos. Too many variables – such as fluctuating productivity, unexpected problems, and new customer requests – make an accurate release nearly impossible to predict. Nevertheless, you and your company need to set a completion date. After all, your customers want to know when they can expect to get the product. And: This is the only way you can plan further steps such as marketing and distribution. So how can you make reliable statements about the release? 

I'll show you how Release Burndown Charts can help you set up a release schedule. I'll also explain how to read Burndown Charts correctly and how you can benefit from them.

 

What are Release Burndown Charts?

A Burndown Chart is a graphical representation that shows how much work is pending in a project in relation to the time remaining. Typically, on the vertical axis of the chart, you'll see the amount of work that still needs to be done. The remaining or elapsed time is on the horizontal axis. 

Thus, a Burndown Chart is a line chart. It shows you at a glance when a project will be completely finished. It also lets you know, if a project will be finished at the scheduled time.

Burndown Charts are mainly used in agile software development such as Scrum. However, you can use them for all projects where you want to measure the project progress over time.

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Back to the main topic ... You can distinguish between two different types of burndown charts:

Release Burndown Charts

Release Burndown Charts - also called Product Burndown Charts - focus on the release efforts within a project. On the x-axis you see the sprints. On the y-axis you see the remaining work or effort for the release. The effort is measured in hours, days or story points. 

When a Release Burndown Chart should be updated is the responsibility of the Scrum Master. He or she usually updates the chart at the end of each sprint. Release Burndown Charts are a proven tool for product management, especially for product owners.

Sprint Burndown Charts

Sprint Burndown Charts show the sprint backlog tasks or remaining work for a particular sprint. On the x-axis you find the time in working days. The y-axis shows the remaining work in hours. You can see at a glance whether your team will have completed all tasks by the end of a sprint. 

Sprint Burndown Charts are an important tool, especially for development teams, to monitor the progress of work within sprints.

 

Sprint Burndown and Burnup Chart: Burndown vs. Burnup

In the context of Release Burndown Charts in Agile, you will also hear the term Burnup Charts. In contrast to a Scrum Release Burndown Chart, a Burnup Chart shows how much work a team has already completed. The chart has two lines: One line shows how much work a project has in total. The other line shows how much work a team has already completed. The vertical axis visualizes the amount of work in tasks, hours or story points. The horizontal axis indicates the days elapsed or remaining.

Burnup charts are mainly used by agile teams that want to keep track of work progress. The chart shows at a glance when work has been added or removed from a project. In practice, this allows a team to set a realistic date for when a project will be finished.

 

How to read Release Burndown Charts

To create a Release Burndown Chart template, you need to evaluate all items in the product backlog. After each sprint review, the product owner then subtracts the story points achieved in the last sprint from the sum of all story points in the product backlog. He or she then updates the Release Burndown Charts.

What does this look like in practice? To make a Scrum Release Burndown more tangible, let's take a look at an example:

Product burndown charts

Source: How to Use Burndown Charts for Transparent and Predictable Development (stxnext.com)

This Release Burndown Chart shows that

  • the summary of all story points at the beginning of the project was 400,
  • the result of the first sprint has delivered 100 story points and
  • the result of the second sprint delivered 53 story points.

This leaves a total of 247 story points.

 

How to Read Sprint Burndown Charts

In a Sprint Burndown Chart template, you and your team determine at the beginning of the project how many hours of work you have available. This value is on the y-axis. The individual days of the sprint are on the x-axis. 

Sprint burndown charts

Source: How to Use Burndown Charts for Transparent and Predictable Development (stxnext.com)

The Sprint Burndown Report on this chart would therefore show that

  • a team plans with an hourly capacity of 160 hours for the sprint,
  • it has consumed 30 hours of total effort after the first day of the sprint, and
  • it has used another 15 hours after the second day of the sprint.

This leaves 115 hours of work remaining for this sprint.

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How you can benefit from Burndown Charts

A Sprint Burndown Template

  • visualizes the progress of the project and the workflow,
  • shows what a team has achieved and what it still needs to achieve,
  • reveals whether a project is on-time,
  • uncovers issues and problems early so that action can be taken,
  • promotes that a team's work is headed in the right direction,
  • motivates a team in its work,

 

What are the weaknesses of the Burndown Charts?

Release Burndown Charts and Sprint Burndown Charts have these two drawbacks in particular:

Exact estimate of effort required

How accurate the actual line is compared to the ideal line on the chart is highly dependent on how accurately a team has estimated the effort. For example, if a team overestimates the effort, the progress line will always be below the ideal line. In practice, this means that the team completes the project or sprint earlier. The opposite is also true: If a team underestimates the effort, the progress line is above the ideal line. The team is late.  

This inaccuracy becomes especially apparent when teams use T-shirt sizes - for example, XS, S, M, L, XL - instead of hours to estimate the effort. The chart can then only serve as a rough guide. 

You should therefore estimate the effort as accurately as possible with your team and use meaningful sizes for the planned effort in practice. You can also introduce an efficiency factor by which you multiply the estimated effort before drawing the ideal line. The efficiency factor is derived from the ratio of estimated and actual effort from previous sprints and projects. Some release burndown gadgets help you by automatically displaying an efficiency factor. You can then notice and take into account misestimations faster.

Consistent use of resources as a prerequisite

Burndown Charts assume that a team can work with the same resources over the entire duration of the project. In practice, however, this is not always possible. After all, if resources - such as an expert - are only available temporarily, this has an impact on the line.

In practice, this means that you have to allocate less work to times when fewer resources are available. Conversely, this also applies to times when you have more resources available.

 

How ready is your organization for agile work?

In order to use agile metrics like Burndown Charts and Burnup Charts, your organization should master agile working on all levels. Project Scagile teaches you in various workshops all important skills for a professional working with Agile. The online training is free of charge. Have a look! Project Scagile teaches you in various workshops all important skills for a professional working with Agile. The online training is free of charge. Have a look!

Conclusion

Burndown Charts support you and your team in visualizing the work progress – and thus being able to make reliable predictions for the completion of a project. The release burndown chart always reflects the release efforts within a project. A sprint burndown chart reflects the sprint backlog tasks, or work remaining, for a given sprint. 

To use Burndown Charts, you can download a Release Burndown Chart Excel Template or Sprint Burndown Chart Excel Template and adapt this to your project. Alternatively, agile Project management tools like Jira Atlassian have Burndown Charts. As long as you make sure that you estimate effort and availability of resources as accurately as possible, the charts can be a great help in your agile everyday life.

Bonus: 7 KPIs for your agile coaching performance

It is not the core topic of this blog post, but as a bonus, I want to present you something we have been working on for quite a while. As you might know, there are many models out there that are trying to break down what high-performance teams do differently.

To name just a few of these models, we really like the “Scrum team effectiveness” study, the “Team flow model” of Dr. Jeff van den Hout or the self-determination theory that helps to foster intrinsic motivation - find more information below.

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Health check radar in Echometer
What the Team Health Check Radar looks like in Echometer.

You can find more information and sources for the above-mentioned team models teams here.

If you want to learn even more before opening the health check retrospective, here are the 7 simple characteristics you will reflect on with your team. As you can see, these are very specific behavioral traits. In our experience, they trigger great discussions - and ultimately action items - in teams.

🚦Feedback: I regularly receive useful feedback on how good my performance is and how I can improve.

🛍 Customer focus: Wherever possible, we try to develop requirements and solutions in co-creative processes with our customers.

👮🏼‍♀️Roles: Team members, Product Owner and Scrum Master share the same understanding of their respective roles in the team.

🍀 Purpose: My contribution is a real added value for my team.

👔 StakeholdersWe ensure that all relevant stakeholders can participate regularly enough in our Sprint Reviews.

🧠 Growth Mindset: If I want to, I can develop profoundly in all areas.

📚 Culture of learning: I am not afraid to ask "stupid" questions in my team.

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