April 23, 2014

Agile Coaching Blog

Hours-Remaining Burndown Charts: An Agile Anti-Pattern?

The hours-remaining burndown chart is a planning tool that allows the Scrum team to know how well they are using their time in delivering the working software. Hours-remaining burndown charts track the time remaining on each task, and show at-a-glance whether the team’s sprint plan is on track to finish all of their stories by the end of the sprint.

Yet, all too often, I hear of teams whose hours-remaining burndown charts seem to lie to them. The team appears to be on target for the sprint, their estimates seem to be spot on, yet they still have stories left dangling at the end of the sprint. Worse, many times these are the most critical stories! Why?

Why are teams that demonstrate such good agile process unable to deliver? The answer is easier and more engrained than you may think. These teams are more focused on showing they can plan well and less focused on completing stories. Sounds to me as though we are still buying into “Plan The Work, Work The Plan” myth, keeping alive the ability to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.

What signs, or smells, should you be looking for to know if this is happening to your team? Metrics about hours remaining is the most obvious. Root cause analysis that uses the burndown chart to spot inefficiencies is another. Something is wrong, too, if people want to throw out the burndown altogether because it is impossible to be right.

What Can You Do?

Focus on the primary directive: deliver working software that is completed within a sprint. Make completed user stories the primary metric. Add a story points-completed burndown chart. This will keep you and your team(s) on focused on the goal—delivering working software.

Story Points-Remaining Burndown Charts & Agile

Don’t toss out the hours-remaining burndown chart. Knowing the hours remaining remains irreplaceable when it comes to triaging the work remaining against the planned software delivered. But don’t let past hope steer you and your teams onto the rocks by focusing you on the myth that time usage can be planned accurately. We know that is precisely wrong.

Next blog, coming soon: The least important information to come out of a user story session may be the story point.

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About Mike Dwyer Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a Principal Agile Coach at BigVisible Solutions working with IT organizations as they adopt Agile and Lean methods. He has extensive experience as a manager, coach, and consultant transforming high growth organizations into hyper-productive Agile organizations. Having held senior positions in healthcare, professional services, manufacturing, and Product Management, Mike brings over 20 years experience managing all areas of software development, quality, operations, and support. He is a well-known and respected contributor to the Scrum, agile, and Lean software community as well as a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST).

COMMENTS:

  1. Alan Atlas says:

    Hi Mike,

    Yes, and…

    I’m also a fan of story burndown charts. To make the story burndown chart as useful as possible, teams should put in the extra effort it takes to split stories so that they are smaller than they were before. If you only burn down 6 big stories in a sprint, there isn’t as much opportunity for your burndown chart to help you.

    I’m also wondering if there might not be something more interesting happening with teams whose burndown charts lie. Since we also know of lots of teams whose burndown charts tell the truth, surely there must be some ways to get better results, should that be a desire.

    alan

  2. 100% agree. We initially tracked the completed tasks in hours and experienced similar results as above. Once we change to focusing on measuring completed stories, the teams focus changed completely.

    Great article.

  3. Linda Cook says:

    Hey tool vendors; let’s make the story burn down the default velocity chart. You can keep the hours burn down if you like, just make folks look for it. I find the stacked bar chart format the easiest way to visualize story burn down.

  4. Alan
    Thanks, this comment made a contribution to some struggling draft blogs. I like the way you put this so munch I will pay you the ultimate Agilest compliment and plagiarize it!!!!! (with attributions of course)
    What I am working on is a simple explanation as to why story points, size and worrying about them are not the root cause of sad user story experiences. Your comments take a chunk out of the wall. Thanks

  5. Dillon.
    thanks for letting us know this can be a game changer..
    Inquiring minds are eager to know more about the what the changes were, when and how did they place and the impact of the changes. This is really important stuff, the kind of information that helps move Agile and Scrum forward.

    Please post and share!!!

  6. Linda
    I like your enthusiasm, it sounds like you have some ‘interesting stories’ behind this enthusiastic suggestion.
    Having friends and past associations with tool vendors, I know they offer similar charts in their suite. I do think you and every other purchaser/user/reporting person can ask where this type of chart is and how to make it readily available.
    Be prepared for the purists, the traditionalists and the generally skeptical to ask why this is important. I found t hand drawing it and putting it out everyday, people start asking you where it is in the tool. This is a much easier path to creating change in an organization..

  7. Mike – good post I would go two steps further – eliminate the rhumb line as it doesn’t correlate with reality and so will just put the wrong kind of pressure on people. In addition I completely eliminate the hours based chart. I’ve seen it lead too much dysfunction.

    @Alan – I think this burndown chart helps perfectly if you have 6 big stories. It shows that you’re still practicing waterfall. It should encourage you to take on smaller stories in future sprints.

    Cheers
    Mark

  8. Jeff York says:

    I wish I would have read this article three months ago! I just started using TFS 2012 on a project and put all my eggs in one basket (hour burndown chart). We have been struggling to complete stories. I’m switching the focus back to story points for the burndown. Done or Not Done. That is the question :)

  9. Jeff
    I thanks for posting. I believe you will find focusing on Completed (DONE) stories keeps everyone focused on the goal.
    Please be careful about Story Points as a measure of Done, In and of themselves, Story Points are only indicators of the relative bigness of a story, not comparative difference in worth of a Story.The only metric that measures DONE, is a completed Story.
    If you make more of Story Points than they add value, you will get higher Story Point estimates and the same amount of stories.

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