Work Breakdown Schedule

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.co

The work breakdown schedule (WBS) is the spine of your project plan. The most important function is to communicate clear performance expectations about the project. For executives, the work breakdown schedule communicates exactly what they’re going to get from the project. That is what the business results will be. The WBS entries, from the scope down to the smallest team member’s task, are measurable deliverables.  Each clearly communicates a performance expectation with numbers so it is measurable.  As an example, the scope of a customer service project might be, “Less than 5% of customers have to contact customer service a second time about the same problem.”  That number is a measurable deliverable, it’s an acceptance criterion. Specifically, the project is successful if fewer than 5% of the customers have to call back about the same problem.  When you communicate that expectation to the executives, they know what they’re going to get from the project. As importantly, they know what they’re not going to get. It clearly tells them that the result will not be perfection. They will still have about 5% of the customers calling back about the same problem.  Main Work Breakdown Structure Page

Work Breakdown Schedule: Trade-offs

The work breakdown schedule is a tool for project managers to control expectations. It communicates to executives that they cannot change the project’s scope without compensating adjustments, called trade-offs, to the project’s duration and/or cost. Dealing with those trade-offs is a key to managing the expectations of sponsors and other executives. Consistently successful project managers use those trade-offs during the initial planning phase to communicate expectations about the project’s scope, time, cost and risk. The scope and major deliverables must be defined in measurable terms so the trade-offs can be quantified. If the scope isn’t defined in this manner, the project will have overruns and dissatisfied sponsors and executives.

Here’s a conversation with “Less than 5% of customers call back about the same problem” as a measurable scope:

An executive says, ” Oh you can do better than that; make it 3%.”

The project manager smiles and says, “We modeled that earlier. Remember?We have a 75% chance of hitting your 3% but it will cost $150,000 more and take 18 months longer.  Do you want to authorize that trade-off?”

The executive replies, “Where did those numbers come from?”

The PM says, “From the computer model we built of the project.  Is this what you want?”

The sponsor’s face turns beet red and he sputters “Of course not, I want 3% for the same budget and finish date.”

The PM says, “That’s not possible, sir. We could improve to 4% for much less. Is that of interest? ”

The sponsor demands, “You will deliver 3% for the same budget and finish date, or you will be looking for a job.”

The PM shakes his head sadly and says, “No one could pull off that miracle. So you’d better fire me now.”

The sponsor storms out.

The project manager handled this correctly, refusing to commit to a result he could not deliver but offering two results which he could deliver.

Work Breakdown Schedule: Deliverables

The work breakdown schedule also shows the executives how the project team is going to deliver the result. The project manager and sponsor decompose the overall scope deliverable into 4 to 7 high-level deliverables. They also define each of those with measured acceptance criteria. Those deliverables are the best way to communicate how the project team will deliver the results defined by the scope. It also gives executives unambiguous checkpoints to measure the progress of the project after work begins. The project manager will also decompose the work breakdown schedule down to the level of individual assignmecomm21nts for the project team members.

Those lower level measured deliverables are the foundation for assigning work to the team members and tracking progress. You should define each task in the work breakdown schedule with a metric and link it to the scope through a network of deliverables. As stated above, you create that network by decomposing the scope into 4 – 7 high-level deliverables.  You continue to decompose the high-level deliverables into smaller deliverables, down to the level of deliverables that an individual will be accountable for producing. A work breakdown schedule developed this way gives the project sponsor, stakeholders and the project manager objectively defined checkpoints against which to measure progress. That is a powerful tool for keeping the project on track and for communicating to everyone that you, the project manager, know what’s going on. Using this technique, you can avoid the difficulties with defining and tracking team member assignments when the work breakdown schedule is merely a “to do” list.

Work Breakdown Schedule: Team Member Assignments and Estimates

If you do the work breakdown schedule correctly, every team member can look at it and know what a good job on their assignment is before they start work. The work breakdown schedule will also tell them how you will evaluate their deliverable when they finish producing it. Because your expectations are clear, a good work breakdown schedule is an excellent tool for developing accurate estimates with the project team members. That’s because they have less need to pad their estimates since the assignment is very clear. Team members pad their estimates because they are accustomed to receiving vague project assignments that change frequently. The usual process of making changes to their vague assignments doesn’t allow the team member to accurately estimate the required work and duration. So the team member prudently protects themselves by inflating the estimates they provide the project manager.

When the project manager develops a work breakdown schedule with measured deliverables, the problem of padding estimates largely goes away. That is particularly true if the project manager uses work packages and makes an agreement with the team members that when their assignment changes, the PM will reexamine their time and duration estimates. That sounds very simple but operating that way gives team members lots of confidence in the commitment process so the project manager gets better estimates from the team members.  Additionally,the work breakdown schedule is the tool the project manager uses to identify the skill set of the people they should assign to each of the entries in the WBS. Work Packages main page

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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