Work Breakdown Structure

Work Breakdown Structure – The Foundation for On-time Projects

The size of a work breakdown structure WBS does not measure how tight the PM’s control will be. However, many PMs and executives think all that micro-detail gives them tight control. It actually gives them less control and a schedule that is too detailed to track and keep current.

WBS: It’s Not a “To Do” List

A “To Do” list work breakdown structure does not give a project manager a foundation for clear assignments to the team, close tracking or tight scope control. These PMs think their work breakdown structure WBS should be a “To Do” list for the project so they can tell everyone everything they need to do. As a result their projects fail most of the time. Yes, it’s those PMs who are to blame for the 70% project failure rates you read about. Let’s see why.

They create this big list by writing down what needs to be done in order, from first to last. That approach requires little thinking and not much time and in a short while they have a long list of “to do’s.” When a PM takes that approach these things happen:

  1. The project takes about 50% longer than it should
  2. The “To Do” list expands weekly during the project’s entire life
  3. The project manager makes vague, unclear assignments to the team
  4. The team spends hours in status meetings discussing what to do next
  5. The project finishes late and requires weeks of rework after it is finished.

To avoid this nasty list, we teach project managers to decompose the project’s scope into the work breakdown structure (WBS). Decomposition takes longer than jotting down a “To Do” list and it requires a lot more thinking. But taking that extra time and doing that thinking gives you a professional-grade work breakdown structure . Consistently successful project managers always use decomposition because is saves time during the project and provides better control.

Work Breakdown Structure: It’s a List of Measurable Deliverables or Achievements

Look at the section of a work breakdown structure below. It was developed using our Best Practices Methodology. The PM took the scope and decomposed it into 7 high-level achievements (3 are shown in the screen shot). Then the high-level achievements were in turn decomposed into smaller achievements. Then we further divide those achievements down to the level of individual assignments. This process takes some thinking and you need to master the right technique but consistent success on your projects requires that you master these skills.

Work Breakdown Structure with Measurable Outcomes for Each Entry

work breakdown Structure

How Many Tasks Should This Work Breakdown Structure Have?

There is no magic number but the usual mistake project managers make is to lay out too many tasks. Their work breakdown structure (WBS) is a “To Do” list of one-hour chores. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that a project plan should detail everything everybody is going to do on the project. This springs from the screwy logic that a project manager’s job is to walk around with a checklist of 17,432 items and tick each item off as people complete them.

This “To Do” list approach is usually linked with another fallacy. Namely, that the project plan should be a step-by-step procedure for doing everything in the project in case we have to do it again. If the PM is managing the wrong things, this may be handy because we increase the odds of having to do this project again. Sponsors encourage these fallacies by marveling at monstrous project plans because they make it seem that the PM has thought of everything.

Unfortunately, on significant cross-functional projects, there is absolutely no chance that the project manager will think of everything. The subject matter experts and specialists are the ones we must hold accountable for that. The result of these fallacies is that PMs produce project plans with hundreds or even thousands of tasks. Many of them have durations of a few hours or a few days. Does this level of detail give us better control and lead to successful projects? In our view, a “To Do” list approach does not give effective control, in fact, it interferes with the achievement of a successful end result.

Problems With The “To Do” List Approach

First, the “To Do” approach leads to, and even encourages, micro-management of the people working on the project. Micro-management is appropriate when you have slackers and nincompoops working for you, but few project teams are composed entirely of these losers. The majority of your project team members will not thrive under micro-management. This style tends to encourage dependency on the project manager rather than independence where people are held responsible for their results.

Second, PMs are consistently more effective when they hold people accountable for reaching measured achievements rather than completing a list of tasks. How often does it happen that people complete a list of tasks and achieve nothing? When we base our assignments and monitoring on well conceived and measurable achievements, no one loses sight of the desired end result.

Third, the “To Do” list approach is hard to maintain. People have to report on many tasks which decreases the odds of receiving accurate and timely status reports. The PM, with or without clerical support, has a great deal of data entry to do to input all this status data. Amid the pressure of on-going multiple projects, tracking can fall behind and may even be dropped because the amount of effort is too large. This may sound like a stupid and improbable situation but it happens with alarming frequency, even on large and important projects. The logic is, “No one is looking at all that detail anyway, so why spend all that time to catch up?”

As a general rule, we like to see the majority of assignments in a project plan have durations that are between 1 week and 8 weeks long. Coupled with this, we advocate weekly status reporting of hours worked, percentage complete and an estimate of the hours of work remaining to complete the assignment. This combination allows the project manager to maintain good control while placing the responsibility for achievements on the team members.

Using the work breakdown structure (WBS) for cross-functional corporate projects, you have the opportunity to design a assignment and monitoring process. As part of our achievement-driven approach, we recommend breaking work down into “packets” of achievements for which you will hold people and teams accountable.

Learn how to craft a WBS that makes your projects more successful by working with a PM mentor in our on-line courses.

 Work Breakdown Structures: Instructions for Projects of Different Sizes

Work Breakdown Structure Steps

Tier 1: Small Project
Done within an organizational unit with your manager or your boss as the sponsor

Tier 2: Medium Project
Cross-functional effort affects multiple departments or is done for your customers/clients
Tier 3: Strategic Project
Organization-wide projects with long term effects
Learn More in Our Courses
Participation in Creating the WBS There is great advantage in terms of project commitment when the team members participate in the development.  The lowest level will be their individual assignments.  So it helps build commitment if they are involved in setting the acceptance criteria that will be their performance expectation.  Even in a small project our work breakdown is deliverables-based with quantified measures that define success. As project size increases, the process of decomposing higher level achievements expands.  Generally we would form separate work teams for each major deliverable and have each team decompose that achievement down to the level of individual assignments. This process not only improves the clarity of assignments but allows for an early consideration of alternatives on each assignment in the WBS. On organization-wide projects, it is difficult or impossible to assemble all members of the project team to participate in the creation so we increasing rely on templates and the work of the project manager.
Work Breakdown Structure Templates Sections of work breakdown structures from previous projects are always a useful time saver in the development of the work breakdown structure.  These templates are even more valuable when they are accompanied by information about the actual performance on the tasks and the hours of work that the achievement required on a previous project.  There is still great value in having the people who will be doing the work participate in this process rather than simply using the template with modifications made by the project manager. As the scale of a project increases to the strategic tier, the identities of the team may not be know. As a result it becomes increasingly difficult to involve the project team members in the development.  In these situations, templates should be used to as great an extent as possible.
Work Breakdown Dictionary (supporting data on each task) This is often skipped on small projects because that level of formal documentation is usually not needed. As the size of the WBS increases, the additional documentation that comes in the work breakdown dictionary is useful.  In it we keep track of all the predecessor, estimating, and change control information about the tasks in our work breakdown structure. The dictionary should be created and continually updated as changes take place. Whenever there are changes to the WBS or other information such as duration, resources assigned, cost estimates and precedence relationships we update the dictionary

Deep Dive on this Topic With Additional Articles:

How To Construct a Work Breakdown Structure

Is Your WBS Designed for Success?

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