Work Breakdown Structures

This blog will look at project Work Breakdown Structures. It is often said that Project Management is a series of breakdown structures:

The APM defines a WBS on its website here.

What is a WBS?

A Work Breakdown Structure is used to capture ‘Project Functionality’. It is a structure of all of the individual ‘tasks’ in the project. Now the best way to do that I believe is with the project team and ‘sticky notes’. Projects require good communication, and project teams develop by working together. Getting the team to ‘Brainstorm’ the tasks required on the project onto sticky notes encourages both team-working and communication.

WBS Photo

WBS Photo

The project Manager should use the team in this manner, even if they themselves understand the project content. It offers a great opportunity to observe the project team in action, and the plan then becomes the teams plan – which is great for commitment.

How Do You Create a WBS

A WBS can be created in at least three ways:

  1. Based on the phases of the project (Initiation, Planning, Execution etc.)
  2. On the products in the project (Software, Hardware, Training Materials, etc.)
  3. Based on the organisational functions responsible for the tasks (Sales, Manufacturing, Design Departments etc.)

There is of course a fourth way – any combination of the above three! There is no ‘right’ method, and no ‘correct’ WBS answer, as long as all the tasks on the project are included.

It is also important to capture the management, quality, reporting and communication tasks onto the
WBS. The WBS should also include all of the Planning and Closure tasks as well as the Execution (doing) tasks.

Tips for Creating a WBS

Some tips for creating the WBS:

  • Use a Verb-Noun structure so each task can ‘stand-alone’ in an understandable way.
  • Add milestones to the bottom of each WBS ‘leg’
  • Look at previous similar projects for ideas on structure and content
  • Don’t forget to add ‘quality’ and ‘checking/testing’ tasks as well as the ‘doing/performing’ tasks
  • Add a work-package of ‘Project Management’ tasks
  • Complete the project with a set of ‘Project Closure’ and ‘Project Review’ tasks.
  • Make sure that ‘Communication’ tasks are covered
  • After 4 or 5 levels it can be difficult to viualise the WBS (MS Project ‘indent’ 65,536 times which is ridiculous!)

Make sure that your “Post-It” sticky note contains a verb such as “Purchase”, “Design”, “Write”, “Create”, and a Noun such as “Test Equipment”, “Project Specification”, “Assembly Jig”.

Write Project Specificiation PostItNote

Write Project Specification PostItNote

In this way, the task is clear, and when later used to discuss task dependencies, it states explicitly what the task involves, rather than a potentially meaningless single word.

Top down or Bottom up?

There are two main approaches to creating a WBS. Top down, or Bottom up.

Top Down: This starts at the project level, and creates the work packages first, breaking the project down into more and more detail. It is useful when a project is similar to another project, or at least familiar in the expected methods and outcomes.
Bottom Up: This can be used for team building, and requests all the staff to brainstorm a list of the lowest level tasks that they think need to be performed on the project. These can then be debated and grouped together, creating the work packages in a bottom up fashion. This method not only creates an opportunity for team interaction and team building with communication, it is useful for projects where the content is more unknown.

Online WBS Tools

Although I believe it is important to use the team and Post-It notes to start this process, it is nice to have a computer based version.  One of the issues of Project Management (and Microsoft Project) is creating a ‘nice’ professional looking Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

www.wbstool.com provides a simple and free method of creating pictorial structures, which can then be exported to an image, or to a format suitable to import into Microsoft Project. You could also use Visio or an Organisation Chart tool.

In the past I have used wbstools for training and presentation purposes, such as this example of the Hangar Simulation (click for a larger image).

New Hangar Simulation WBS

New Hangar Simulation WBS

It is easy to develop the WBS for the tasks happening in the next 3-6 months. Don’t forget to revisit the WBS to update it for the tasks required later in the project.


Posted On: 15th June 2020

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