How to use burndown charts for better decision making

A picture is worth a thousand words. No one knows that adage better than a time-strapped project manager trying to get everything completed on schedule. That’s where burndown charts can come into play.  

What is a burndown chart?

A burndown chart is a visual representation that shows the amount of work left to do on a project, versus the amount of time in which to do it. There are two different types if burndown charts:

  • Sprint burndown chart: measures work remaining on one particular task or “sprint”
  • Work burndown chart: assesses work remaining on an entire project

How do you use burndown charts?

These types of burndown charts play a key role in Scrum agile development, but they’re beneficial to just about any project management style. Why? They allow team members to view and understand progress easily and then adapt accordingly to meet their goals.

Effective time management is critical to any successful project. Yet, only 28% percent of companies say they consistently use techniques like this to measure performance. This inefficiency leads to 9.9% of every dollar wasted due to poor project performance. That’s $99 million for every $1 billion invested.

Here are tips for building insightful burndown charts that’ll help everyone meet deadlines, pivot faster, and deliver quality work on time:

1. Set the timeline

  • Determine the sprint length: In order to maintain a sustainable pace, sprint lengths can vary from a few days to several weeks. The project manager should determine the timeline after getting input from the whole team.
  • Assess often: Choose review intervals that are long enough to give you valuable information, but short enough to allow you to react or make meaningful adjustments if needed. For a short sprint, a quick daily check-in may be necessary. For a long sprint, weekly or bi-weekly check-ins may be enough.
  • Foresee plateaus: In some projects, achieving objectives take longer, causing your burndown chart to flatline. For example, in complex web- and IT-related projects, time can seem to stand still when team members reach more intricate tasks. These are excellent challenges to plan for during your daily or weekly meetings.

2. Do the work

  • Allocate resources: Assign teams and individual contributors to do the work in pre-determined portions.
  • Clear tasks: Tasks should be clear, specific, goal-oriented and measurable. For example, instead of creating an assignment titled “Content Creation”, break it down into specifics: “Create 15 pages of home décor content to increase visits to Lifestyle section of website.” This granularity ensures everyone is on board and committed to the goal. It also encourages ownership of tasks.
  • Goal oriented: Team members should have a clear vision of the goal they’ve met and the impact of the completed work. You can achieve this by having a sprint review on the day of completion. Here you can discuss creative steps and any issues that arose. This review should include the task owners, project manager and any other relevant team members. If a sprint finishes early, you can discuss opportunities for adding a backlogged item to your chart.

3. Review regularly

  • Checking in: Syncing early and often helps teams regroup, show progress and give feedback on the fly. A quick gathering allows for forward motion to continue, but also highlights bottlenecks and gaps without having to wait weeks to unblock.
  • Daily or regular standups: These are quick, to-the-point meetings that keep everyone updated and in the loop. This is not the time to delve into long debates. If a bigger issue arises, a discussion can proceed after the meeting with the proper stakeholders. Keeping them short and sweet encourages everyone to deliver updates in the same way. For example:
  • What I did yesterday
  • What I’m planning to do today
  • Any obstacles that might hold me back

4. Read between the lines, adjust course

  • Pivot quickly: Burndown charts deliver insight at a glance, so your team can work faster. Be sure to review their progress regularly enough to adjust course and not compromise the deadline.
  • 45-degree burndown: In an ideal world, your burndown chart will display at a perfect angle of 45 degrees. This visual cue indicates everything is on track. But, things can get bumpy. Watch out for these negative indicators:
  • Flat lines: If you notice this happening, it means sprints aren’t being closed on time. Perhaps the task is more extensive or more detailed than it first appeared. It could also be bottlenecked, meaning one person hasn’t completed a task required to move forward with the rest. If this happens, the project manager needs to intervene and help formulate a plan to meet key project milestones.
  • Peaks and valleys: Seeing a lot of peaks in your burndown chart can mean several things. There may be some ambiguity about what’s included in the sprint. Or the team may have realized that it’s more efficient to start working on another aspect of the sprint first. If this happens repeatedly, be sure to discuss it at your meetings, so everyone knows what to work on next. 

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