What is WBS?

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

What is the WBS? The WBS or work breakdown structure  is a list of every task the team needs to complete in the project. After the project manager lists all the tasks, he or she links them with predecessor tasks that control the sequence of the tasks. Then the project manager assigns resources to each task in the WBS. The resources could be people,  contractors or materials. Next, the project manager calculates the duration of every task in the WBS. That completes the project schedule.

When the project sponsor approves the schedule, the project manager saves the approved version of the schedule in the software as the baseline. When work begins, the project manager keeps track of the progress of each task. That is the basis for status reporting and that’s how we use the WBS.  Main WBS – Work Breakdown Structure Page

What is WBS?: The Decomposed Project Scope

The WBS is not a list of the things people think must be done in project. That “to do” list approach to developing the work breakdown structure causes projects to cost more money and take longer than they should. You develop the WBS by working top-down from the scope. You start with the scope of the project that is defined by the project sponsor. Then you break it down into 4 to 7 high-level deliverables. Each deliverable must be measurable, like a metric or an approval/sign-off. Then you take each of the major deliverables and break it into its components. Those are the elements that are required to produce that deliverable. On a very large project, you may work down another level or two and subdivide large deliverables into smaller ones. You continue until you get down to the level of individual assignments for team members.

What is WBS?: How to Create the WBS

The WBS is central to the entire process of planning, scheduling and tracking a project. The best practices for developing a WBS involve these steps:

  1. The sponsor of the project defines the scope or overall objective
  2. The project manager (you) define each of the major deliverables by its end result. As an example, “Clean up the file room” is not a clear deliverable because you can’t measure the end result. On the other hand, a deliverable like, “98% of the files on the shelves in alphabetical order,” does define the end result in measured terms.
  3. You take each of the major deliverables and break them down into smaller deliverables. You stop when the task is the right size for an individual project team member contractor.

What is WBS?: An Example

Now let’s see how you would take an assignment called “Fix the XYZ program schedule” assignment and create a WBS. First, you go through the process of identifying what you want your team member to give you when he or she completes this assignment. wbsGoing back over your conversations with the project sponsor, you could identify a number of characteristics they want to see in the schedule. They want the project to be finished in less than 250 days. They want to avoid using outside contractors. And they want to spend less than $325,000 on the project.

So you use those metrics to tell your team member exactly what you want. You tell them you want a schedule that completes the project in 250 days or less, doesn’t use outside contractors and has a budget of less than $325,000. Those are the success criteria for the assignment and that’s the deliverable you would define for the team member. A really awful assignment would have been to tell the team member you want the schedule revised to be shorter, cheaper and not use any outside contractors. If you do that, the odds of getting what you want are very poor. That’s because the team has to guess what you mean by faster, cheaper and no outside contractors.

At this point, you don’t know if this deliverable is actually achievable. You need to sit down with the team member and look at the current schedule. You need to give the team member a chance to think about whether the result is achievable. Then they need to think about how long it will take them to achieve the result. You would discuss the approach and the budget for doing the work. Then you would have a good entry for your work breakdown structure. Create WBS With Team Members

What is WBS?: Too Much Work?

You may be saying to yourself, “It is going to take me a lot of time to decide exactly what I want and how I’m going to measure it for every task in the WBS.” And you are right. It does take more time than compiling a “to do” list. However, remember how important the WBS is to your project success. It is the centerpiece of every project. You use the tasks in the WBS as the foundation for estimating the work, costs and duration. The WBS gives team members clear project assignments, allows everyone to track progress on their tasks and it allows you to identify problems. As the project team executes the plan, you compare their actual results to the estimates for each WBS task. That lets you quickly identify variances and design corrective action.

Unfortunately, too many project managers don’t recognize the importance of the WBS. They think they can just make a list of all the tasks in the project and then start work. That approach yields projects that take longer and cost more than they should. Those projects are late because the PM did not identify all deliverables during the initial planning. To develop a strong WBS, you begin planning by defining the scope and the major deliverables. Then you break them down into tasks that are team member assignments to create your WBS.  Work Breakdown Structure Size

What is WBS?: How Big is It?

Project managers often ask, “How many tasks should this project have?” or, “How much detail should I have in the WBS?” The mistake PMs often make is to list hundreds of tasks. work breakdownThey start by listing the first thing they can think of to do and stop when they can’t think of anything more. They may list tasks that will take as little as an hour to complete. The driving force behind this minutia is the fear of forgetting something. How Many Tasks in a WBS?

It’s easy for a PM to think that a project’s WBS should detail everything everyone should do on the project. PMs mistakenly think that will protect them from people forgetting or skipping an item because they are lazy, stupid or sloppy. The PM may also think it frees them from relying on the thinking or creativity of the team members. The team members can just put their heads down and follow the “To Do” list. The PM mistakenly thinks they have thought of everything. That’s an unrealistic expectation.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on Amazon.com