A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is one of the standard building blocks of project management. It’s mandated as part of EIA-748-B because a product-oriented WBS defines the work required to complete the program. It shows the hierarchy of program and project work and is commonly used in programs using waterfall or predictive project life cycles.
A WBS is a breakdown of the key aspects of project scope. Each level of the WBS breaks the work into smaller chunks, known as work packages, until it is no longer relevant to break it down further. Some ‘branches’ of the WBS will break down into more levels than others, and that’s fine. As long as the structure is internally consistent and makes sense to the team, you can add as many boxes as you like.
The WBS for complex projects can look busy, with many boxes. There is normally supporting documentation that sits alongside the visual hierarchy chart which goes into more detail, for example who will own the deliverables, and what cost and timeframe is associated with the work package. For government contractors, there is the MIL-STD-881 guidance to follow on how to create a WBS.
All of that adds up to a lot of work before the project really gets going. There are multiple conversations to have with many stakeholders, and you’ll need your team in place so they can help create the WBS based on their specialist knowledge. You may also have to work with your client or a government agency to make sure nothing is missed off the WBS by mistake.
Is it really worth it to do all that work and create so many documents for project scope? Yes! You can’t lead a complex project with scope defined as a list of bullet points. Your project schedule requires the work to be broken down, and the WBS is the tool to do it, and to maintain the integrity and traceability of scope items.
If that wasn’t enough of a reason, here are 7 benefits of using a work breakdown structure for project management.
1. Identify all the work
This seems obvious, doesn’t it? Who starts a project without knowing the full scope of the work? Well, in the real world, work slips through the cracks. And on a project with tight deadlines and steep requirements, missing something out can affect your profitability as a contractor.
The exercise of creating a WBS can help you identify all the elements and generate a comprehensive project scope. You’ll avoid missing individual tasks or deliverables that might have been otherwise overlooked.
2. Highlights the bigger picture
When everyone can see the WBS as a hierarchical structure and a visual map of what needs to be done, they can spot where they fit in the overall project management plan.
The WBS underpins the way that control accounts are set up for cost management, which in turn helps with project performance management at the bigger picture level.
3. Improves communication
Detailed project information helps communication throughout the project team. There are lots of conversations involved with getting the work packages scoped and planned. Those discussions help clarify roles and responsibilities, make sure people are clear on expectations and set the team up for good working relationships going forward.
As the project progresses, the work package information serves to keep people on track with what they should be doing. It’s a way of keeping communication focused between the Control Account Manager and Work Package leads, and between the managers in charge of work packages and individual contributors.
4. Minimizes changes
The project objectives are clear, you have an accurate level of work represented in the WBS… that should translate to fewer changes during the execution phase. We all know that programs rarely make it to the first milestone without some kind of change request, so some level of change is to be expected.
However, the more you can minimize changes to project deliverables, the more chance the team has of being able to meet customer expectations and mitigate the impact of the cost of change.
5. Inputs to project schedule and resource estimates
Each work package can be planned at a detailed level by subject matter experts who can identify how long the tasks will take and what resources are required to complete them. Individuals can be assigned to a work package.
One or more work packages can be rolled up into a control account for earned value management purposes. Then schedule and resourcing can be aggregated and reported on at a level that makes sense for project performance tracking.
6. Inputs to cost estimates
The WBS breakdown is a major input for getting better visibility of project cost using bottom-up estimating. Costs can be estimated at work package level by the people doing the activities. This information feeds into the project budget.
Later on in the project, the work package information helps track project progress. As part of the WBS creation process, you would have identified the key milestones and performance metrics used to measure how things are going. The deliverables can be tracked against the performance baseline and any specific Key Performance Indicators so that cost management reporting can be shared with the core team.
7. Helps identify risks
Project risk management often involves workshops that flag up generic risks. When you use a WBS, you can identify risks at work package level. This makes the risk identification effort much more specific and relevant to the contract.
Some risks may stay within the work package to be managed and monitored by that team. Others may be escalated to the Control Account Manager, or up to the project manager depending on the scale of the project and your internal processes.
Do you use work packages on your projects? If you are not yet doing so, give it a go. Get more support by learning about WBS creation and use on one of our project management training courses. You don’t have to be using earned value management to make use of this powerful project management technique. And if you are working in an EVM environment then we’d argue it’s a must-have part of your project manager’s toolbox.