Software Metrics

Burn-Up Chart: Exposing Scope Creep and Revealing Your Real Progress

The burn-up chart is the “little brother” of the better-known burn-down charts. We all know how to read a burn-down chart. But it can be extremely valuable to learn the slightly-more-complicated burn-up chart, as it can help you expose scope creeps in your project, see your actual progress, and communicate it easily to stakeholders.

In this article you will learn:

This is part of our series on agile metrics—see other articles in this series:

What is a Burn-Up Chart?  

A burn-up chart is a tool used in Scrum projects. It is a visual representation of a team’s work process. It displays the scope of a project and the work completed. Using a burn-up chart, a team can easily track their progress as they work towards completion of a sprint. A burn-up chart provides information in a straightforward and user-friendly way.

Burn-Up Chart

The chart’s horizontal axis represents time (usually measured in days) while the vertical axis represents the amount of work (usually measured in story points or hours).

What Do the Three Lines in the Burn-Up Chart Mean?

  • Total effort or milestone line—the total effort required to achieve the team’s goal (a sprint or release)
  • Team effort or work completed line—the team’s progress toward the goal, over a given period (typically story points completed)
  • Ideal line—the ideal work pace needed to meet the project’s deadline

The burn-up chart is updated at the end of each unit of time. Once updated, the chart shows the team’s actual progress. The team effort line climbs from the bottom up towards the total effort line. When the two lines meet, the team’s goal is met.

A team can see how much work remains on their project, by watching the distance between the team effort line and the total effort line. The chart makes it simple to track, modify and ideally improve a team’s work process.

Burn-up vs Burn-down Chart

A burn-down chart shows the amount of work remaining on a project (the remaining effort), whereas a burn-up chart shows how much work has been completed and the total scope of the project. In a burn-down chart, the line goes from top to bottom as a team makes progress, while in a burn-up chart the line climbs from the bottom upwards. Both charts use the same axies.  

While both charts are relatively simple to follow, a burn-down chart may be easier to understand because it only displays only one line (or two, adding the ideal development velocity). A burn-up chart, however, provides more details, showing both total work achieved and work done in the previous increments.

Advantages of Burn-Up Charts  

Because a burn-down chart only has one line, changes made to the scope of the project are not visible. Consider the following scenarios:

  • A goal requires more work than was planned
  • A client suddenly demands extra features

In a burn-down chart, these changes to scope will be invisible and it will appear the team is getting less done. In a burn-up chart, you can clearly see the scope increase and the actual progress by the team.

Using the Burn-Up Chart to Manage Scope Creep

Scope creep is a well know anti-pattern in agile development teams—it happens when more work is added during a sprint, which can disrupt agile estimations and processes.  

When scope creep occurs, a burn-down chart will give the impression that the project is progressing as usual. However, on a burn-up chart, a dramatic increase in the scope of a project is clearly visible. A product owner or customer can reduce the work, or alternatively a team can adjust their sprint and release plan. Moreover, when a team makes changes to the budget or scope of a project, these changes are seen at the top of a burn-up chart.

For example, if you follow the red line on this burn-down chart it seems like the team did not complete any work between the 5th and 6th sprints.

Using-the-Burn-Up-Chart-to-Manage-Scope-Creep-figure-1

But in a burn-up chart, the changes made to the scope of the work are clearly visible. It is also easy to see that the team did get work done in the 5th and 6th sprints. In fact, they exceeded their original velocity estimations.

Using the Burn-Up Chart to Manage Scope Creep figure 2

Having a total effort or milestone line can also help a team communicate more effectively with stakeholders and clients. A team can use the burn-up chart to display the effect each scope change has on the entire project. A product owner or client can also be regularly updated about the true progress being made by the team.  

How to Create a Burn-Up Chart Using an Excel Spreadsheet

There are many tools a team can use to generate a burn-up chart. One of them is Microsoft Excel. Because the burn-up line indicates work already done, a team needs to have started working before they can begin creating the chart.

Our instructions on how to create a burn-up chart in Excel are based on the excellent post by Rob Frohman.

To generate a burn-up chart using Excel, create a spreadsheet with columns indicating time units and work completed. After several iterations have passed, the team’s velocity can be calculated to estimate completion time.

Using this data, you can generate a plot indicating work you have completed.

Next, calculate the average work pace of previous sprints (usually the last three). Now add a Forecast Completed column, start it in the current period, and add a forecasted amount of work completed in each future period. Do this simply by adding the average work pace for every period. In the image below the team is expected to complete 22 story points per sprint.

Now you can plot the new column, creating a release burn-up chart. The image below shows another twist—adding a standard deviation calculation to show a “high forecast” and “low forecast” and create a safety margin for your estimates.

Burn-Up Charts and Your Investment in Quality

Burn-up charts help you visualize how fast your development is moving, and what’s getting in the way. An important thing burn-up charts cannot visualize is technical debt. Consider the additional dimension of technical debt; in particular, quality problems that may be present in the product and are not fully addressed during the sprint. This is also a type of scope creep, but one that doesn’t come from product owners—it originates from you, the development team.

Can we create a chart that visualizes our investment in quality, instead of one that only shows progress in building features?

A new category of tools called Quality Intelligence platforms can do just that. They provide a visualization of Test Gaps—features which have recently undergone change or are actively used in production but are not tested comprehensively (or at all). Test gaps are like stories, only in reverse—a test gap is a negative story you need to eliminate in your product.

SeaLights is a quality intelligence platform that helps you visualize Test Gaps and perform focused maintenance work to eliminate them. You can use this data to add focused maintenance work to your sprints. By plotting the total amount of unresolved maintenance work, and the Test Gaps eliminated in the last iteration, you can show a burn-up chart showing quality, not just number of new story points, representing your confidence in the quality of your product.