The basics of burn-up charts: What they are and how to make them

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“A burn-up chart helps keep your stakeholders and Scrum teams informed of the progress towards a larger product goal which can take many sprints to finish. They help build trust as we make things more transparent.”

~Stephen Waring, Agile coach

Burn-up charts are just one tool in the project manager’s toolbox — but these humble charts can be impressively effective. They’re perfect for presenting a quick snapshot of project progress, as well as showing progress over time or the ways a project’s scope keeps shifting. 

The burn-up chart is well worth understanding and adding to your arsenal. So let’s take a look at what a burn-up chart actually is and how to make your own.

Understanding burn-up charts

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A burn-up chart is a type of project management chart common in Agile methodologies (including Scrum). It uses two horizontal lines to show progress over time.

One line shows the total amount of work in a project (or part of a project). This line is usually flat or horizontal, with bumps possible if the scope of work changes.

The other line moves up and to the right as work progresses, showing how much of the whole is complete (and how much remains).

Burn-up charts are important in Agile project management because they show how much work the team has already accomplished, keeping their focus on the end goal.

Burn-up charts compared to other project management charts

Burn-up charts sit opposite the burn down chart, which shows the reverse (a steadily decreasing line that “burns down” until the project is complete). 

Agencies can use both of these alongside or instead of other project management charts (like Gantt charts or flowcharts), as each one provides a different view and a different set of data points. 

For example, a Gantt chart showshow a project will proceed over time, but it isn’t a great measure of how much the team accomplished during a specific time period. 

The burn-up chart does a great job of the latter, but doesn’t have near the level of detail of the Gantt chart. So it isn’t the best big-picture view of exactly what’s happening and in what order.

So which one should you use? The right project management chart (or charts — nothing wrong with using several different types!) for a given situation depends on numerous factors. 

To choose, you should consider where you are in the project management life cycle, what you’re trying to visualize, the type of work (or project) you’re managing, and more.

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Key components of a burn-up chart

Every burn-up chart needs at least these four components to be readable and useful:

  • X-axis (time frame)

  • Y-axis (scope / work units)

  • Scope line

  • Completion or progress line

X-axis (time frame)

The x-axis, running horizontally, right to left, usually represents the full project timeline (though a burn-up chart can focus on a specific subsection, deliverable, or process). It’s important to divide the x-axis into equal increments so that the chart shows consistent progress over time.

Most burn-up charts use days, weeks, or sprints as the x-axis interval, depending on the project's duration and structure.

Y-axis (scope / work units)

The burn-up chart’s vertical axis quantifies the work of the project, again using some kind of roughly equal increments. 

You can use story points (a popular measurement in Scrum and on Agile teams), work hours, or individual project tasks to measure the y-axis. Again, it just depends on the project structure and how you measure work.

For example, if you’re billing by the hour, then structuring your burn-up chart by hours makes sense, especially if you have a specific target you need to meet (or can’t exceed). If you’re structuring a project around story points, sprints, and iterations, then those are, of course, better measurements for the y-axis.

Scope line

The first of two chart lines, the scope line represents the entirety of the project’s scope. In a perfect world, this is a straight horizontal line running across the top of the chart.

But what about in the real world?

Well, in the real world, scopes change over time. And that’s OK, so long as you’re accounting for any increase in scope.

The scope line is one representation of that increase. When you add work to a project, then the scope line moves higher, demonstrating the addition of more hours or story points or features or deliverables.

Completion or progress line

The final line on the burn-up chart moves up and to the right, showing how much of a project you have completed. This line starts at zero (the bottom left corner of the chart) and rises as the team completes work. So it shows how much work you’ve accomplished across measurable segments of time (sprints, weeks, days, etc.).

Ideally, when a project reaches its end, the completion line will have reached the scope line at the top right of the chart.

Step-by-step guide for creating a burn-up chart 

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Building a burn-up chart isn’t exactly rocket science, but creating one that’s effective and clear takes more planning than you might think.

Follow these seven steps to create burn-up charts that clearly communicate project scope and progress to the team and to stakeholders.

Step 1: Define the scope and metrics

First up is identifying the scope of your project. Your total project scope includes every single task, deliverable, user story, and/or whatever else comprises your project.

Once you have the broad shape of your project worked out, you’ll need to quantify that scope using measurable units.

  • In Scrum, these are often story points.

  • In more traditional project management, you might measure by tasks and subtasks.

  • In billable contexts, you might choose billable hours as the quantifiable unit.

Last in this step is choosing your tracking metric. In most cases, this will correlate with the way you quantified your scope. For example:

  • Story points completed

  • Number of tasks done

  • Number of hours logged

Step 2: Set up your chart axes

Now it’s time to define and set up the two axes on your chart.

  • X-axis (time): The horizontal axis serves as your project timeline. Mark the x-axis accordingly, and divide it into equal intervals (days, sprints, weeks, etc.) based on the project’s timeline.

  • Y-axis (scope / work units): The vertical axis indicates the total amount of work and how you’re quantifying that work. The highest point on this axis should at least equal the total project scope. Points along the axis can reference a distinct number of work units or a percentage of the entire project.

Step 3: Plot the scope line

With your axes defined and labeled, you’re ready to plot the scope line, which is the measure of the entire scope of the project.

If you’re setting up a burn-up chart for a brand-new project, this scope line will look like a steady horizontal line at the top of the chart. Remember, it’s a measure of the entire scope, and so is your y-axis — at least, for now.

If you’re managing an existing burn-up chart or building one for a project that’s already underway, you’ll want to adjust the scope line based on any changes that have occurred. 

Showing that project completion is a moving target can be extremely clarifying, both for teams that might get demotivated by a “lack of progress” and for stakeholders complaining about schedule or budget overruns. 

This move keeps the project grounded in reality, describing it in real, measurable terms that stakeholders can’t really argue over.

Step 4: Plot the progress line

This step is all about tracking completed work regularly and accurately. At a set interval (which could be the end of each day, week, or sprint), record the cumulative total of work completed.

We recommend recording this information in our project management suite, using one of the many pre-built templates in our template library. But wherever you record it, go back to your burn-up chart and update the progress line to match. 

The progress line represents cumulative project progress, typically starting from zero. As the project progresses, this line should approach and eventually meet the scope line.

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Step 5: Add milestones and annotations (optional)

This optional step varies depending on how you manage projects and the type of project you’re building the burn-up chart for. 

  • Milestones: If your project has milestones, mark them on your chart. Start with where you expect them to occur, and then indicate on the chart when each one actually occurs.

  • Annotations: A picture (or a chart) might be worth a thousand words, but sometimes you need actual words too! Use annotations to explain any important events, decisions, or changes affecting the project's progress or scope. It’s important to be able to trace back through the whys, not just the whats.

Step 6: Regular updates and maintenance

As your project progresses, stay on top of the chart, updating it regularly. Remember, for a burn-up chart to be a useful tool, it has to be both accurate and up-to-date.

Your burn-up chart will be especially helpful in project team meetings. First, it can focus the team and provide a single shared point of reference. 

Second, team members can point out any inaccurate elements of the chart. For example, they might notice that the chart doesn’t include certain scope changes. This can provide an opportunity for valuable discussions to ensure everyone is on the same page and eliminate potential project risks or roadblocks.

Step 7: Interpret and communicate

Last up is a step that’s more about using a burn-up chart than creating one. If your chart is going to make an ongoing impact, then it needs analysis and interpretation — along with a champion to communicate that interpretation to the right people.

Analysis and interpretation

As the keeper and maintainer of the chart, you can see how it changes over the course of the project. You’re in the best position to see when something’s starting to slide sideways. 

So watch for trends that could indicate deeper issues. If the progress line is consistently lagging behind where it should be, or if the scope line looks like it’s ascending Mount Everest, something may be going quite wrong.

It’s up to you to notice what’s going wrong and figure out why.

Communication with stakeholders

Once you’ve identified problems (or, even better, once you see them starting to form), use the burn-up chart to provide a visual representation of those problems. This will help you communicate clearly with team members, managers, and stakeholders.

Project managers are typically responsible for communicating project progress and expected completion. Bolstering your communication with a burn-up chart can make your message more compelling and easier to understand.

Create better project management charts with

Burn-up charts are just one of many types of project management charts that can help you better understand and visualize your work. That’s true whether you’re a Scrum master swimming in story points or an accidental project manager looking for better tools for project planning or roadmap building. is operations and project management software built for client service teams and their project work. It’s perfect when you need to track progress across the total scope of your projects or zoom in on a granular level of data.

See more of what can do for your business now - get started now for free, view our comprehensive pricing plans, or book a demo today.

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