The Power of Work Breakdown Structures

by Doug Couvillion, former Impact Makers’ consultant

Introduction

A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a simple, tool used to quickly and concisely define the activities required to complete a project.  Used properly a WBS can be a very power.  It is well suited to group collaboration and helps ensure all activities needed to complete a project are identified.

The Power of Work Breakdown Structures

Work breakdown structures are really nothing more than visual depictions of work to be performed.  They are commonly written as outlines or shown graphically in a format similar to an organization chart.  Either way, the work is laid out in a hierarchical format.  As the name implies, a work breakdown structure breaks complex activities, or projects, into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Although they are very simple, work breakdown structures can be quite powerful.  Some have even argued the WBS is the most important tool in a project manager’s tool kit.  Oddly, they are often over looked and underutilized.

The power of a WBS lies in its simplicity.  It allows people in different roles, with different backgrounds, to see the work planned and provides them with a sense of how it will be organized without all of the detail of a schedule.

Work breakdown structures are great for defining and validating the scope of a project.  A project team can work together to develop the WBS and thereby define the scope of the project.  If the WBS is complete, the only work expected of the project team is the work required to deliver the items on the WBS.  Once it is developed, the WBS can be reviewed with customers, executives, and others with an interest in the project, to ensure a common understanding of what will be delivered.

A complete work breakdown structure also provides a useful framework for developing project estimates.  Any item on the WBS that is too big or ambiguous to be accurately estimated must be broken down further.  Creating project cost estimates from a well developed WBS is simply an exercise of estimating the cost of each item on the WBS and adding up the totals.

Getting broad participation in creating the work breakdown structure is fairly easy.  Have your team brainstorm the activities required to complete the project and write them on sticky notes.  The activities can then be grouped together logically on a wall or whiteboard and broken down further to build the WBS.  Doing this creates team buy-in on the approach, facilitates a common understanding of the project approach, defines the scope and reduces the risk that critical activities will be overlooked.

Below is an example of a simple work breakdown structure for building a deck.

In this example, the work is broken down into four phases: Site Preparation, Purchase Materials, Construct Deck, and Clean Up.  Each of those phases has several activities associated with it.  In a more complex project those activities would be broken down further until they were small enough and detailed enough to estimate and manage.

If this work breakdown structure was shown to a carpenter and the homeowner they could both understand the work planned and, no doubt, would both add different types of activities to it.  The carpenter may want to add activities around designing the deck, measuring, and cutting the lumber, while the homeowner might bring up activities for adding lighting or getting approval from the home owners association.  Having people with different perspectives review, or better yet, participate in the creation of the WBS greatly reduces the risk of missing activities and misaligned expectations.

Conclusion

The next time you are planning a project, consider building a work breakdown structure with your team.  You’ll find it an easy and effective way to determine the activities that must be addressed by your project.  Once the WBS is developed it can be used to build time and cost estimates and serves as a great starting point for developing the project schedule.

The Impact Makers Difference

Impact Makers is a management and technology consulting company based in Richmond, Virginia. We provide Project Management, Business Process Improvement and Healthcare/Medical Management Strategy and Implementations. We are a for profit company but we have no shareholders and contribute our profits to local, healthcare related charities. Impact Makers ranked 360th on the 2012 Inc. 500 List of Fastest Growing Private Companies in America. A founding Certified B Corporation, Impact Makers also was named a 2013 Best for the World Company for Overall Impact. To learn more, visit www.impactmakers.org.