A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) outlines major categories of work, task and subtask levels that aid the project manager and team in breaking down a project into progressively smaller pieces. The work must be broken down until time and costs can be estimated. It shows all the work that needs to be accomplished, including major milestones. The concept is fairly standard but the software, terminology and numbering systems can vary from among organizations. If nonstandard terminology is used, this hurdle to project management will need to be discussed and overcome.
The WBS helps to prevent omitted tasks and defines what must be done to complete a project. It can be flexible and allows you to classify work into meaningful categories and assign or allocate cost center or department codes as appropriate. Work breakdown structures are usually designed in one of three formats with a WBS dictionary of descriptions.
Graphic Tree Format
The graphic tree format of a WBS is identical to an organization chart in appearance. The principal difference is that the WBS represents a finite amount of work. The progressively lower levels of the chart depict a portion of a work tree and each lower level represents the tasks and subtasks that support the major milestones.
This is the most common type of work breakdown. Some software for managing projects refers to indented levels as children and to the higher level as the parent. The outline uses up far fewer pages to display the breakdown of project than the graphic tree format. A standard numbering system will represent major milestone represented by a whole number (1, 2, and 3); each activity is assigned an additional number depending on its parentage (1.1, 2.1, and 3.1) and tasks receive an additional number, (1.1.1, 2.1.1, 3.1.1) and so on. Some numbering systems may use a combination alphanumeric system, which might look like 1, 1Aa, 2Aa and 3Aa).
Combination of Tree and Outline
Another alternative in developing a work breakdown structure is to combine the tree and outline methods. The top level levels that represent major milestones could be represented using the graphic tree method and beneath each major milestone, list the activities and tasks for that major milestone in outline form with or without numbers. However, tasks and subtasks should be appropriately indented.
Dictionary of Description
For programs and large projects, a work breakdown structure dictionary should accompany the WBS. In construction and renovation projects, categorical specifications such as electrical, mechanical, and finish work are also broken down and perform the same function as a WBS dictionary-to provide distinctions between levels of work. A WBS is capable of spelling out all the work that must be done to achieve the project goal. It is also capable of assigning responsibility to specific team members and provides essential information, such as specifications, materials and supplies, and deadlines.
Constructing a Work Breakdown Structure
You should construct a WBS for your project with the help of your project team. It can be composed at one of several planning meetings-ideally before work begins. The goal of the planning meeting would be to solicit input from the team that is responsible for the project work. As project manager or leader, your primary roles at these meetings will be facilitator and scribe.
Three Steps to Creating a WBS:
1. Do some preliminary planning and develop a list of pertinent items before asking the team to meeting so you can have it handy to review after the brainstorming.
2. Arrange for the project team to meet away from the normal workplace to avoid interruptions. Based on the skill requirements from the preliminary project plan, ensure that the appropriate team members are invited to the meeting.
3. Begin the meeting with a brainstorming session.
Everyone should be respected for their idea. The goal is to capture as many responses as possible, using a flip chart or electronic board which can print a copy of what you write on the board. If possible, begin to input data into the project management software. Break down work efforts until costs, including labor, materials, support staff, and overhead until costs can be identified and estimated.
These preliminary estimates will change as actual costs are determined. You must determine the major milestones, tasks and subtasks that must be accomplished to reach the project goal. After all the major milestones have been identified, ask the following question for each one: To accomplish this major milestone, ask “what are the activities that must be performed?” Continue in this manner from higher to lower levels of detail until the WBS is complete.
Rules of Thumb
• Identify all required products and services.
• Break down work efforts until team members can estimate the time (hours) required to perform the task and write measurable completion criteria.
• Breakdown every major milestone and specify at least two subcategories, tasks and subtasks.
• Specify in measurable terms when a level of work is complete using square feet, test results that can be measured objectively and used to measure percentage complete.
• Completion criteria eliminate confusion and potential conflicts over specifying when a task is finished.
• After the WBS is complete, time estimates and completion criteria can be assembled for all project work.
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