WBS Project Management

Dick Billows, PMP

Dick Billows, PMP

Our 25 years of experience helping organizations improve their project performance has taught us that the work breakdown structure or WBS is the best predictor of the success of a new project. By reviewing the work breakdown structure before a project starts it is relatively easy to determine five key project success factors:

  • Will the project team members clearly understand what the PM expects of them?
  • Will the project manager be able to identify problems early when they are small rather than after it is too late to fix them?
  • Will executives and the project sponsor be able to assess progress versus the plan?
  • Will the estimates of work, cost and duration be reasonably accurate?
  • Will the project manager be able to exercise tight control and spot problems early without micromanaging the team?

It is very efficient to assess the entire project planning process by reviewing the work breakdown structure before work starts. At that point, the PM can still make corrections and avoid dozens or hundreds of hours of wasted time. In fact, this is such an efficient insurance policy on new projects that we recommend to our clients that it be part of the organizations pre-launch project review.  This pre-launch review of the WBS does not take a great deal of time even if the work breakdown structure is large. Main WBS Work Breakdown Structure Page

WBS Project Management: Pre-launch Pressure

Right before the project launch is a stressful time for project managers and project sponsors. There is tremendous pressure to start work. But of a few hours of delay for a WBS review can save many days of wasted time and head off project failure. Because of the pressure-filled environment, we recommend that this pre-launch WBS review be a mandatory part of the organization’s project management protocol. The review takes place at the end of the project planning process. No matter how big or small the project is, the project manager is always suffering from near-sightedness at that point. It’s very hard for the project manager who created the WBS to see its flaws as well as its strengths. Because errors in the work breakdown structure are so costly and so difficult to correct later on, it is advantageous to have another project manager who was not involved in the planning evaluate the WBS.

WBS Project Management: Review Process Steps

You begin the review of the work breakdown structure for another PM’s new project by looking at the structure of the WBS. Look to see if the entries are organized into subheadings for each of the major deliverables of the project. If so, ask a couple of questions of the project manager who developed this WBS. Did the project sponsor and major stakeholders of the project sign off on the project scope and 4 to 7 major deliverables? If the project manager says no, they must go back to the drawing board. Clearly they can’t launch a project that has not been approved by the sponsor and stakeholders.comm23

If the PM’s answered yes, the next item to examine is the entries in the WBS including the high-level deliverables and the scope. Are they deliverables that describe an end result and the acceptance criteria that the sponsor will use to judge the work? You should see deliverables like, “Customer history database is 99% accurate,” or “Average response time on the network is less than three seconds” or “Quality control has signed off on the product prototypes.” The PM should define each of those deliverables with the acceptance criteria that are either metrics or a yes/no. In other words, they are objectively measurable. If every entry in the work breakdown structure does not meet this measurability criterion, the project should not be launched. The reason this is so critical is that properly defined deliverables tell the team members what’s expected and let the sponsor and executives track progress unambiguously.

The third item to examine is the size or average duration of each of the deliverables. What you’re looking for is micromanagement where the project manager has defined a very large number of WBS entries that have a duration of an a few hours. If you see that kind of excessive detail, you know several problems will occur. First, the project manager will not be able to keep the project plan current because there is far too much detail. Second, with that micro level of detail it is likely that every one of these entries will change over the course of the project and the project manager will not be able to keep it up to date. And a project plan that is three weeks out of date is the same as having no plan at all. What you are looking for on most projects is an average task size that is about a week’s worth of work. Some tasks will not require that much time and others will require several weeks of time. But on the average, you are looking for about a seven-day duration for each of the WBS entries.

The next item to check is the adequacy of the deliverable definitions for making duration and work estimates. This is a subjective area but you want deliverables that are defined with sufficient precision that the team member and project manager can make an accurate estimate of the work involved. If there is inadequate precision, the project manager will develop work packages for the assignments with weak definitions.

Finally, you need to examine the WBS to determine whether the project manager will be able to exercise tight control and spot problems early without micromanaging the team. Here you have to look a bit beyond the WBS and determine the requirements for the status report and the frequency of the project manager’s reports. The most important requirement is that the team members provide the PM with an estimate to completion each week. That is the key to project managers being able to identify problems early on any component of the WBS.

When you are evaluating a work breakdown structure for another project manager, it’s always best to look at it from the perspective of all the different audiences who will use that work breakdown structure. That will let you give the PM helpful, well-rounded feedback.

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