Scrum master tips – The burndown

I have been working with several entry level scrum masters over the past few years and have discovered that although they may fully understand the general ideas of rituals and artifacts of the scrum framework, understanding the underlying agile value proposition these things support. Gaining insight into how they can utilize them with continued effectiveness with their teams seems to not be something that many do not often explore initially.

So I thought it might be helpful to convey how I view these items and how they can actually create impact for you as a scrum master to up your effectiveness with the teams.

My personal philosophy when I became a scrum master was that my role was a lynchpin in the process overall and that by increasing my understanding and effectiveness of the roles, rituals and artifacts, I could become a better servant-leader to a team overall.

This is merely how I view and utilize these things and hope that they help you as well.

What is the burndown chart?

The burndown chart falls into a category for me to be viewed as an “information radiator. It provides information in a static way that can allow the scrum master and the team to view the current state of product work within the sprint. It radiates information that can then be consumed and acted upon. It is a great artifact for assessment and course correction as well as allows scrum masters to begin to see items occurring within a team that may not be readily apparent, even to the team itself.

It is a chart that is measured by taking the amount of overall effort to be performed (hours of work) and plotting it across an axis of the total working calendar days of the sprint. Often it is coupled with an “ideal line” that reflects the optimum burn of effort equally distributed among days. As the “task hours” are burnt down, it reflects where the team is in terms of hours remaining to complete within remaining time of the sprint.

A typical burndown might look something like this:

burndown chart

In this scenario, the team has 400 hours of delivery tasks over an iteration of 10 days. This reflects work that may be done by the entire team (coding, testing, design, etc) for the 2 week iteration. So, the ideal line is reflecting to the team that at an average burn rate of 40 combined hours of effort by the team that is projected to complete the committed work within the 10 day sprint period.

Typically  the burndown charts I have used reflect the days of dedicated effort and do not reflect periods of planning, review, etc as these are bookend ceremonies to provide sprint lift-off and sprint landing. The burndown is focused on the time where team effort is directed towards end commitment.

The basic idea behind this chart is that from an agile perspective the highest value is to be aware of the work remaining undone and not to remain focused on the work already completed. So the responsibility of the product team is to reflect the remaining hours daily to represent the actual burn of working on a given story.

This is a very brief and straightforward explanation of what a burndown chart is so let’s delve into the next level of how it is helpful, how we might utilize the information and look at some ways to interpret patterns we may see inside a burndown to better frame questions or make inquiries to the team to help them.

What does a burndown chart do for a team?

As I mentioned before, it is an information radiator to a team. It gives them a snapshot of the past brief period of work and tasks completed and a reflection point for the work remaining to be done within the sprint. This information allows them to reflect a current team state both internally and externally to convey where they are without a “direct status report” to others outside the team as well. Anyone looking at the chart can get a general idea of where the team might be even if they do not fully understand the chart itself. This, however, can also lead to bad perceptions as opposed to informational learning as we will discuss later.

It is incumbent that a scrum master fully understand the purpose of this artifact, the reasons behind how it actually works and to begin to see patterns of work or potential team dysfunction within a burndown chart.

This allows them to not only accurately convey how to use this information and its purpose but frame questions aimed at potentially keeping the team productive or assist the team to be actively  aware of the “first responsible moment” of when a product commitment might become in jeopardy.

Patterns of burndown charts

Visual representation of work often allows an excellent opportunity to the scrum master and the team to reflect on familiar patterns that can be a visual queue to certain information or team dysfunction.

The Ideal Line is merely a Projection

As a scrum master, if you have the belief that below the ideal represents the idea of “being on track” and above the ideal is “being off track” you are taking a far too simple view of the  information that the team provides.

The burndown should be seen as a reflection for consideration of current state of a product development print to make inquiry, not predictive like a project schedule. The ideal is merely a projection of all things working with no issues impacting the team. It is a projection used for comparison. Establishing the thought as a scrum master of anything other than this or reinforcing to the team that it means ahead or behind the curve is a bad precedence to set and can lead to future problems.

Effort Swelling

For instance, in the image above, the team starts on day one burning down tasks and within the next 24 hours begins drifting above the ideal. A simple view might create panic and say “HEY EVERYONE! WE’RE BEHIND ON DAY TWO. WE GOTTA DO SOMETHING!!!!” when the circumstances that cause this picture could result from many potential reasons and should be information we can use as a scrum master to reflect on and potentially frame questions such as:

  • Did the committed work had greater unknowns than the team imagined and tasks are emerging? Normal and very possible. Probably just something to be aware of and see how the trend moves within 24 hours or so. But a basis to have the team reflect on this data maybe as a visual cue to them in your next stand-up.
  • Is the team struggling? Is there a causation? Has the team experienced a drop in overall capacity from the commitment due to sickness, not accounting for a team member vacation, etc? Many modern electronic tools, such as Microsoft Team Foundation Services,  will allow you to adjust the loss of capacity by each team member and the chart will update to reflect this effort recalculated across the iteration.
  • Are they just stuck? Are they mentioning impediments in their daily stand-up? Is there something you can do to assist or coach them to self-organize around solving the problem through inquiry?
  • A common symptom of a potential team dysfunction is that the members are not actually “burning down” their hours. They are pulling a task into a working state and working on it until done, therefore reflecting the total hours when there is actually less to be completed and then moving it to done all at once. This can show work not moving and so the work remaining can begin to begin a swelling pattern. One way of getting some insight into the pattern is if you see large drops of work following a swell.

Effort Drops (“work falling off the cliff”)

This pattern may look something like this:

Burndown Chart 2

Some questions that might happen when seeing such a drastic drop quickly:

  • Was the work committed less complex than the team thought initially and they just hit a “rapid burn” (Go Team!)
  • If following a swell, is the team actually burning down the hours regularly?  Are they perhaps holding on to tasks and not updating remaining hours but just pushing it to done when completed? This might prompt a scrum master to look into this information that the burndown provides in combination with the sprint task board and use it during a retrospective for exploration of “what does this mean to the team”?

Again, the key takeaway here is that these types of patterns provide an opportunity to learn, observe and inquire to assist you as the scrum master to help the team remain productive towards meeting their commitment. This information can help you teach the team to use this information to get some insight as to what is going on either during the sprint or used for exploration with the team within the retrospective.

These are merely some simple examples of how this artifact of the scrum framework can be used. It is best to keep in mind the concept of how it reflects back information to the team. Many scrum pioneers have discussed “BVC’s” (big visible charts) of which this can be one to help teams reflect on their current state of work and make adaptations based on insight. I hope this blog post allows new scrum masters a new way to use this artifact and can help them assist their teams with better insight …

I often consider this quote when thinking of a burndown chart in relation to teams …

“Information is only useful when it can be understood” – Muriel Cooper

 

 

 

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