Create the Right Work Breakdown Structure

By Michiel Bos | Small Business

When companies begin working with work breakdown structures, they can struggle to pin down the appropriate level of detail required for an effective overview. Some find they become so bogged down in details that effectively executing the work becomes impossible, while others leave the plans at too high a level for them to be of any practical value.

Firstly, it’s important to understand what your WBS does and does not represent. It is not a description of the processes to be followed in order to complete a project, or a schedule pinning down when the various agreed upon deliverables will be completed. The WBS focuses purely on describing and detailing the project’s scope.

In general terms, the concept works best if the top level information focuses on the deliverables and major work areas in the project, with lower level information providing more detailed coverage of ‘work packages’. Focusing on distinct sub-sections of the project, they offer concrete definitions of the work to be performed, combined with enough information to effectively support project management processes like schedule development, cost estimating, resource allocation, and risk assessment.

In addition, it’s also very important that the WBS is closely linked to the project deliverables. When dividing up the project into manageable work packages, it’s essential that all activities are continually aligned with the overall aims of the project. The WBS must remain clearly focused on what needs to be achieved to complete the assignment as agreed with the client. Without committed effort to relate every activity and target back to the confirmed deliverables, it’s all too easy for scope to start creeping and hours to be wasted in work that isn’t delivering real value to the customer and can’t be billed.

Put simply, the WBS can be thought of as a map, a clear representation of easily understandable tasks and milestones that give all project participants clear direction. This in turn supports effective management of the activities taking place, providing a tangible idea of not only the end results, but the path to achieving them on time and on budget.

There aren’t hard and fast rules here – it’s simply a question of creating an overview that gives everyone insight into and control over what’s expected of them. This can be graphically, textually or in a table form – choose whatever medium fits best with the project members and the work itself, and will get the message across as clearly and as quickly as possible.

Think 100%
The 100% rule is one of the most important guiding forces in effective use of work breakdown structures. In essence, the rule states that the WBS should include all work involved in fulfilling the project scope and completing the assignment successfully. The rule applies at all levels, the sum of the detailed work packages equal to the sum of the parent work described at the higher level.

It is also dictates that it shouldn’t contain any work that is out of scope for the project – 100% is also the maximum that can be described. In other words, ensure everything is covered, and don’t waste time planning for activities that won’t directly contribute to realizing your goals.

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