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Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), The Project Manager’s Most Effective Planning Tool!
By Sharon HoSang

A Guide To The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Fourth Edition states, Work Breakdown Structure is”… a deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables, with each descending level of the WBS representing an increasingly detailed definition of the project work.”

Imagine the WBS is a drilling tool used to get the project manager and the project team to the smallest part of the hierarchical work decomposition. It chips away at the summary information (the first tier of the WBS) to the detail data or tasks (the second tier of the WBS). This second tier is usually broken down into third and successive tiers depending on the size of the project.

WBS accesses information by starting with a general category (the deliverables) and move down through the hierarchy to get to the work packages. Work packages are the output of breaking down the projectwork intomany smaller parts to the level where Project Manager is comfortable to manage the project. Each discrete part is a smaller part of the tier or level above.

WBS is about arranging the tasks and allocating them among the project team to complete. It makes the deliverables more precise and concrete so that the project team knows exactly what has to be accomplished within each deliverable. Its multi-purpose nature also allows the project manager to double-check all the specifics of the deliverables with the stakeholders in order to make sure that they are not missing anything or duplicating efforts.

WBS deals with time management and much more; and is the basis for measuring the progress of the work in the project. It is the best framework to estimate the time it takes to finish each task, the cost to perform each task and the risk associated with each task. The team members can work their way from the smaller tasks back up to the highest level of the entire project. Project success depends on a well-crafted WBS. This is a must tool for any project manager.

Use Work Breakdown Structure to Impress and to Succeed

  • Communicate Project Plan and Build Team Commitment

    WBS is an effective communication tool to top management, team members and all other stakeholders. It transfers all the knowledge, information and feelings of the detailed work to be to done, to the team members. It illumines the understanding of the team members; evokes positive attitude and behaviour towards the project and the creation of the product. It facilitates discussion among team members and other stakeholders. WBS also promotes the customer’s and organization’s interest by outlining their strategic objectives; and the how of accomplishing those objectives by persuading the team members to take action.

    When team members and stakeholders participate in the process of creating WBS, it builds commitment to see the project through from the beginning to the end. It invokes a loyalty to produce quality product for the customer. They are able to have a better understanding and appreciation of the work that needs to be done. It also gives the team a sense that the tasks are achievable. Therefore, it helps to improve team performance and reduce the risk of executing the project work. It makes it much easier for the project manager to get the team and stakeholders to accept the deliverables they create.

  • Manage and Estimate Project Scope

    WBS gives a detailed illustration of the scope of the project. It allows stakeholders to have greater understanding of the scope, the work and the complexity of the project. The project manager is able to see the structure of and the various parts that make up the project, as well as have a clear picture of the boundaries of the project. With WBS the project manager is also able to give a more realistic estimate of the cost of material, of labour and of equipment for each task.

  • Assign Tasks and Track Project Progress

    WBS clearly defines the deliverables; it helps the project manager to easily assign those deliverables to individual team members, sub-contractors or other organizations. The project manager is better able to write assignment descriptions for team members. It allows for accountability on the part of each team member.

    The WBS is an achievement-driven methodology. With WBS the project manager would find it easier to assign and monitor project works that are well-conceived and with measurable achievements. In this way, all team members would be more focused on the desired end result. It therefore assists project managers to be more effective in holding their team members accountable for attaining the achievements outlined.

  • Control and Monitor Project Work

    Once the project manager gathers all the basic information and has a clear understanding of the project objectives, defining the WBS becomes very easy. It helps the team to focus on the deliverables and not the activities. The deliverable is the big picture. It is the panoramic view of the unique products or results that must be completed in order to perform the project successfully. The WBS helps the project manager to detect and record any condition that might affect the desired result of the project. It also allows the project manager to be in a better position to give direction where needed. It is like the rudder that steers the project ship to dock in the harbour on time and within cost. It prevents important deliverables and activities/tasks to slip through the cracks.

    The project becomes more manageable when it is broken down or decomposes into smaller detailed parts. It becomes easier to define and allocate specific resources to these smaller parts. Decomposition saves time during the project. The small parts now become the measuring instrument for work completed or to be completed.

    To ignore preparing the WBS and merely jotting down a list of activities to be completed is to invite failure into the project. Usually, a “To Do” list does not give the project manager effective control. It defines the activities to be done and the amount of time spent on each. Usually when the team is overwhelmed with the activities that they have to perform, they write a task list in order to operate more efficiently. The aim is to manage their time better. Therefore, task list is only a time management tool. It is ineffective in bringing about success of the project when compared with the WBS.

    With the list there is no way of knowing if team members are capturing all the activities to complete the work. The list can seem unending and overwhelming to the team members. It could make team reporting difficult because they are unable to measure how much work is completed and how much is left to be done. A list of activities could take the project beyond its scheduled time and cost, preventing a successful outcome.

  • Manage Project Quality

    WBS helps the project manager to focus on delivering quality products that are fulfilling the business and stakeholders’ requirements and objectives. Attention to quality prevents defects and re-works. It prevents waste and saves time and money. The Project Manager is in a better position to project budget and schedule baselines. The project manger’s time would be better spent preventing problems rather than dealing with them. It is far better to plan in quality than to later inspect the work and find problems. Inspection that results in fixing defects is very costly to the project and organization.

    Once the project manager sets clear acceptance criteria, it becomes the baseline to measure tasks performance and completion against them. This gives the project manager and the team a better understanding of the tasks, improves quality and guarantees a higher rate of project success.

  • Manage Subcontractor’s Work

    Subcontractors work can sometimes get out of control. The project manager needs to know what is to be done, when it will be done and who will be doing it. It is a lot easier when the project manager views and treats subcontractors as if they are part of the internal project team. As part of the team, subcontractors are then expected to submit WBS with their bids to be considered for the contract; report on tasks should be done against a detailed WBS, so that their work becomes measureable. This allows the project manager to be more likely to pick up the differences in cost and schedule estimates among all the vendors bidding for the project; exercise some control over the contractor’s work. This reduces the risk of delay and re-work of contractors’ delivery.

Clearly, the WBS is very important and most effective in planning, executing and monitoring projects. It shows the hierarchy of the project works and the relationship of one deliverable to another. It is used to solve problems that may be encountered on the project; allows team members to be able to quickly complete the tasks contained in the work packages without requiring more information; gives the project manager a clear picture of what work packages to outsource or subcontract out if necessary. Since work packages are divided into activities, they are excellent for time management for the completion of these activities. It accomplishes what is intended in the project in order to have the desired result of the products or deliverables that satisfy the customer. A project manager is therefore “blind” without this planning tool.

Make it a part of your project now!

Sharon HoSang is an engaged leader, with ten (10 +) years’ experience managing multiple projects. She has proven ability to identify, analyze and solve thorny technical problems that hamper operational efficiency and effectiveness. She has Initiated and managed cross-functional teams. You can contact Sharon via Linkedin.

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