Using the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) for Project Planning

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Image of flowchart on whiteboard depicting the need for a work breakdown structure.

When projects are first evaluated and selected, they are largely defined by a vision of goals, strategies and deliverables. But once the go-ahead is given, this vision must be quickly translated into a series of tangible tasks and activities that can be timely executed and completed by the project team. This is realized through the project WBS.

Within standardized project management practices, the specification of project tasks and activities is referred to as a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). The WBS is an essential project planning deliverable, serving as the very foundation of the project plan. Depending on project needs and technical capabilities, the WBS can be produced as a simple list, as a detailed report, or in graphical format, but the goal of any effective WBS is clear -- to translate project goals, deliverables and processes into a structured picture of tangible work components.

The WBS is a Project Planning Roadmap

A well run project is a work of art, created with a variety of components, both strategic and tactical.  Tasks and activities are two of the most important "tactical" components, forming the basis of the project work effort.  Before the totality of the work effort can be executed, related tasks and activities must be arranged into an "actionable, orderly composition".  That is the WBS.  The WBS provides a roadmap for the project team, laying out the overall work effort required in a logical sequence of time and responsibility.  Within any project environment, the WBS serves three (3) primary goals:

  1. It breaks the project "work effort" down into specific, manageable work components.
  2. It communicates tasks, schedules and responsibilities in a structured format.
  3. It provides a baseline for progress measurement and change control.

In this capacity, the WBS is a key project "process" deliverable, used to facilitate project planning and the related scheduling of all tasks and activities.  There is no singular approach to WBS preparation, nor is there one format to follow.  WBS detail and complexity with vary based on project needs, available technical tools and the level of experience with the type of project at hand.  Regardless of complexity and format, WBS preparation is simplified when a standardized, structured approach is taken.  To facilitate the process, it's best to take a structured "building blocks" approach (further explained below).

When is the WBS created?  At the project definition stage.
Who is involved in WBS creation?  Contributing stakeholders, led by the project manager.
What are the required inputs?  Project scope, schedule, expected work effort and resources.
Who must approve the WBS?  The project executive and decision making stakeholders.
Does the WBS remain static?  No.  It must be maintained as changes are approved.

Working with WBS "Building Blocks"

The "building blocks" approach to WBS development unfolds in four (4) key steps as outlined below:

Step 1:  Create your "WBS" building plan (using the questions listed below).

Step 2:  Select your WBS "building blocks" consisting of the tasks and activities required to achieve and produce planned project results.

Step 3:  Arrange your building blocks into a structured framework of "project phases".

Phase structures provide the means of organizing project work into logical blocks of time and purpose.  Phases can be sequential or can overlap to allow certain work to occur concurrently.  For example, work relating to the identification, analysis and approval of technical requirements can be organized into a "requirements" phase.   This requirements phase can occur at the same time as a "planning" phase, but can also be a "checkpoint" for a subsequent design phase (where all design work takes place).

Step 4:  Produce the WBS deliverable.

Your WBS building plan should begin as a sketch .... a rough outline of the work required to complete your project. As you sit down to create this sketch, you must be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What types of tasks and activities are required to achieve project results?
  • How much time is required the completion of each task and activity?
  • How will this work be structured and sequenced to ensure timely completion?
  • Who will be responsible for each task and activity?

The WBS goes hand in hand with the project Business Case and Statement of Work, which provide the “vision”, authority and work effort scope for any given project.  Careful attention should be paid to ensure that the task oriented WBS is sufficiently aligned with these vision and scope oriented deliverables.

Continue for more on this subject in our featured articles Defining Scope for Action and Approval, Performing the Project Stakeholder Analysis

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