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Project Management Practitioner: Techniques for Work Breakdown Structures

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0


Break it Down!

The money-maker tool for project managers is the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). It is the basis for scope definition, schedule development, resourcing, cost projections, and scope verification. The WBS provides the relationships among all the components of the product, to include deliverables and work activities. Each lower level of the WBS shows more and more detail. The completed WBS identifies all deliverables and the tasks/work packages used to measure project performance. As a rule, if it is not on the WBS, it is not part of the project.

Why use a WBS

It helps to define deliverables and all work activities required to complete the project - It provides a logical means of organizing the information - when done right, it provides a better overall understanding of the scope of the project, what is in-scope versus out-of-scope - and allows you to assign cost and time estimates to work activities - and begin the work of identifying logical relationships between work activities/tasks in order to diagram the project's work flow in a logical and manageable manner.


The WBS process is a top-down identification of the project's product or service content and the work required to complete each element. It is an iterative process, in that you and the team will usually create a straw-man concept of the main elements. Then, as everyone starts to see the picture grow, they will tend to go back and forth from element to sub-item creating more detail until everything is identified. It's also common for the team to jump the gun and start naming work items and activity tasks before completing the WBS. This is part of the challenge for the PM: you must guide and remind everyone that we first must identify what it is we are creating before we can decide what tasks and work activities need to be performed. This back and forth then refocusing the group is normal.

Do Your Project WBS Homework

Become familiar with the major components, as in deliverables for the project. Review the original scope (project/product) statement and related project justification information to identifying any and all criteria for project success. Do this before the first WBS work session. It is this type of information you will need to keep in mind, and at hand, to aid you in leading and facilitating the group in WBS development.

Many projects have common elements to them. Building projects have common elements to them. Software projects have common elements to them. Even, new product development and research projects have common elements to them. If you've never participated in a project similar to the one you are about to undertake, take some time to research previous projects and glean from them some of the common, or what seem to be rudimentary elements quite likely to exist in your project. If you can't find other past projects to study, talk informally with some of the subject matter experts in the business and get familiar with the fundamentals relating to the type of project you are to manage. Another source for WBS basic elements is via an internet search; especially searching through the project management resources websites such as: PMI, local PMI chapters, PM Lessons Learned Site.


Work Packages

"A deliverable at the lowest level of the work breakdown structure": more on Work Packages and Work Authorization in an upcoming article, soon.

At the lowest level of the WBS, is the actual identified and labeled work to be performed, as in the tasks and activities necessary to create the deliverables and sub-deliverables or elements. These represent work items that can be grouped into work packages. With work packages, a PM can determine associated material, resources, and personnel costs and time needed to perform the work. This assignment of costs and time allows the PM to perform a bottom-up identification of all project/product materials, resources, costs and time required to complete the entire project. Furthermore, the cumulative data establishes the project performance measure baseline. All the individual work packages and their cumulative values assigned to each deliverable, provide the information needed to develop a project schedule, as well as serving the purpose of measuring the rate of work completed against the baseline, over the duration of the project.


WBS Dictionary and the Design and Specifications Document (DSD)

A WBS dictionary provides the detailed information regarding the major deliverables, subordinate/element deliverables (or sub-deliverables), down through the lowest level of work. These are essentially mini-scope definitions. However, in complex projects involving many and detailed requirements, it is more effective to give general requirement definitions and refer the reader to the Design and Specifications Document (DSD), or some variation of a DSD, for all the exact details required to satisfy the customer/client/sponsor and achieve project goals and objectives. Don't forget to identify in the WBS dictionary the responsible party or owner of the deliverable and work activity. Usually, it will be either a project team member or a functional manager.

Code of Accounts

Every deliverable, and down through to every unit of work, must have an accounting code. Sometimes these account codes are based on the WBS identifier, such as: a primary project account number [Project ABC123-1.1; or Project ABC123-]. The collective group of account codes is called a "Code of Accounts" and allows the PM to assign a cost and time projection to each and every work item and resource in the project. The accumulated totals of the work packages/tasks identify cost and time for sub-deliverables and the primary deliverables. The total of all the WBS deliverables and costs associated with the PBS provide the foundation for the full project cost and schedule projections as well as the baseline for project performance measures. Also, the codes should have a reference to the activity owner for accountability purposes.


WBS versus PBS

Confusion abounds as to a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) versus a Project Breakdown Structure (PBS). The purpose of a PBS is to reflect the elements and activities performed by the PM, project coordinator, administration, sponsor, and stakeholders to manage, communicate, coordinate, and supervise the project, to include approval and decision points. The WBS, on the other hand, reflects the actual content, structure, and work that must be performed in order to create the product or service output of the project. Thus, the WBS and the PBS are not the same thing, and yet, they interrelate on many points, for example: The PBS will depict test and evaluation plan development that must be included in and listed as a work/task in the WBS; the PBS may include "control points" for quality reviews and milestone reporting requirements that will also have to be reflects on the WBS.

All too often the WBS is, in error, organized around PMI's project lifecycle process groups of Initiation, Planning, Execution, Control, and Close-Out, or the attempt is to structure the WBS by the PMI ten knowledge areas: Project Integration Management, Project Scope Management, Project Time Management, Project Quality Management, Project Human Resource Management, Project Communications Management, Project Risk Management, Project Procurement Management and Project Stakeholder Management. (Page 61 and Table 3-1 of the PMBoK) PMI's ten Knowledge Areas are tools in planning, managing, controlling and tracking performance. They are not tools used to breakdown the product or service.

You will find an article here on InfoBarrel covering the topic Project Breakdown Structure (PBS) along with many other project management topics include in the Project Management Practitioner Course.


Let us look at some techniques available for developing a WBS in a group using an Organizational Chart, Mind Mapping, and Ishikawa Diagramming.


Techniques for developing a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): The most common method used for displaying the finished WBS is a Hierarchical Organizational Chart; however, it doesn't always fit the bill as an initial or starting point tool in creating the WBS. I have a couple other choices that have paid-off over the years: Mind Mapping and Ishikawa Diagramming. Yes, those are the same tools I presented to you in the article and lesson material on Problem Solving and Decision Making. When you think about it, that is what we are doing in the initial stages of creating the WBS:  we are trying to solve the problem. We must determine what is in the project, the product and how will we accomplish the project.


Charting Methods: Starting a WBS from scratch takes a bit of creativity, good organizational skills (in reference to information mapping and logic) as well as above average team leading and meeting management skills. I've often found that a large corkboard wall that I can stick pins into or a clean wall that I can tape 3x5 cards or sticky notes to, as invaluable resources when working with a team to identify and depict the deliverables and their respective sub-deliverables or elements. A large erasable white-board with a handful of eraser board color markers is also quite effective. Other materials that work well for marking, recording and displaying WBS results are the old favorites of the large white or brown butcher paper sheets, flip chart boards or poster board. Whatever method chosen, the goal is display the information large enough for everyone in the room to see, participate, and provide the flexibility to add, delete, move items around until all WBS items are identified.


Hierarchical Organization Chart: The advantage is that it literally tries to show the product's highest level deliverables at or near the top of the chart. The next level is a breakdown of the higher deliverables and then it continues by drilling down until. After adding the all the sub-levels, the actual work activities/tasks are identified. Although the chart appears as both a vertical and horizontal depiction of the project's product or service content, it is in reality a vertical top-down mental exercise. This means that it tends to force people to try and view and work on the deliverable as a single column juxtaposed against the other deliverables. The up side is it makes numbering the WBS items a bit more straight forward.


Ishikawa Diagramming: Also known as the Fish Bone Method in problem solving, this tool is used in a similar fashion to the hierarchical organizational chart; however, it literally turns the project on its side. Draw a horizontal line across the middle of the board and on the far left end of the line, place the project's name (this is the head of the fish). That horizontal line is the spine of the fish. Identify the first deliverable item of the product and draw a diagonal line starting somewhere along the spine going either up or down the spine, but angle it towards the right side or tail of the fish. Name the line. For every major deliverable, there is a diagonal line, either above the spine or below the spine and named accordingly. Once all the diagonal lines representing the major deliverables have been completed, then each participant views the fish bones and starts dissecting the major deliverables into smaller pieces. In other words, just as in the previous organizational chart, what makes up the major deliverable? For every sub-deliverable there should be a small line shooting off from the major deliverable fish bone; and for every reducible sub-deliverable, there should be little bones attached. Everything named or identified in some way to make it obvious to what all the pieces and parts are that make up this "big fish" project.

One of the great advantages of this method is that it allows team members to view this project from both a vertical and horizontal perspective. Everyone does not process information in a straight line or in a "stove-pipe" tunnel. The Fish gives a bit of added flexibility to jumping back and forth in this mental exercise. If you use this method, make sure you use a large board or wall and provide sufficient room between the main fish bones to adequate fill-in all the minor bones or sub-deliverables and work items. Also, you will still need to establish the accounting codes for the WBS elements and work items.


Mind Mapping: Sometimes a project involves unknown solutions and requires a lot of creativity to determine how to achieve the scope goals and objectives. When a project is quite unique, more than usual, the team will need to be given a lot of room for mental flexing. Mind mapping is another method that is sometimes used in problem solving. In a WBS development environment, it allows for a lot of free floating thinking and bouncing back and forth from deliverable to deliverable, sub-deliverable or element to another. This might seem undisciplined at first, but if you've ever been a part of an information technology (IT) project that has to come up with a very specific and creative solution to a client/customer/sponsor's problem or request, this method is quite effective. In IT/Software solution projects there are often a lot of issues relating to coding (of course), data relationships, data population, calculations, and, well, I could go on but you've got the point.

To start a mind mapping session, I suggest you use very large erasable white board and a blank wall that you can tape up some flip chart paper or butcher paper. The flip chart paper serves as giant scratch paper to work through some of the technical issues, or remind everyone of the design specification requirements. On the white board, right in the center, draw a circle just big enough to write the project name in so that everyone in the room can see it. After that draw four or five lines at angles around and away from the center circle as if they were rays of light shooting from the sun. Those lines allow the group to start identifying the major deliverables and those items are named, one to each line; if more main lines are needed, then just continue adding more rays from the center circle.

Just as with the Ishikawa/Fishbone method, the major deliverables are then decomposed into sub-deliverables and small additional lines are placed off of the main lines as appropriate. Another benefit of this method is it can permit the adding of boxes and circles to the various lines in order to include any techie or engineering jargon. They can also be used to make references back to one of those flip chart sheets I mentioned earlier, where the techies and engineers can hash-out additional details. Caution - this method, although it allows for a lot of flexibility, problem solving and free thinking, if left unchecked, can spiral out of control by some team members becoming fixated on one or two deliverables and ignoring the other items or issues.


Lessons Learned

When work activities or tasks are brought up before the WBS elements have been completed, ask the members to write down those items and keep them close by so that they can be addressed again after the WBS elements have been completed. If the group goes into a spin on an item/elements and seems to be fixated on the work activity identification for a WBS element, then it may be beneficial to the group dynamics to allow them to keep their focus on that element or content grouping and complete the drill down to identify all the work it will take to complete that item. This fixation is common with inexperienced project teams. The upside benefit of letting them loose to focus and drill down on the one item is that they can see how the WBS is used to breakdown or decompose the project from elements or functions to work tasks. Furthermore, this is an opportune time to also have them determine the resources and time requirements need to complete those tasks so that you can take that information to begin the budget estimates/projections. Once the team has completed that one item, turn their focus back to identifying the remainder of the product/service content elements.

Here is a sample Work Breakdown Structure (but far from a complete WBS)


0.0 Project Name: ABC Research and Development Laboratory

1.0 Building Foundation

1.1 Ground Preparation

1.1.1 [Work Package/Task] Excavate slab footers and prepare are for main utility services IAW the Design and Specifications Document (DSD). (Estimated 10 days, contract work out at a cost estimate of $100,000.)

1.1.2 Main Plumbing Lines from Street [Work Package/Task] Install main plumbing lines for the building in the building footer area. (Estimated 4 days, contract work out at a cost estimate of $8,000.)

1.2 Concrete Slab

1.2.1 [Work Package/Task] Pour gravel and sand mix into base area.

1.2.2 [Work Package/Task] Pour Concrete over gravel sand area.

2.0 Building Frame

2.1 [Work Package/Task] Frame the building over the concrete slab.

3.0 Building Exterior

3.1 Windows

3.1.1 [Work Package/Task] Install All-Weather double pane windows.

3.2 Entry/Exit Doors

3.2.1 [Work Package/Task] install four sets of double doors: front, back and side doors.

4.0 Building Internal Structure

4.1 Office Spaces (x8)

4.1.1 Office Walls [Work Package/Task] Frame offices in accordance with the Design Specifications Document. [Work Package/Task] Install Drywall in accordance with the DSD. [Work Package/Task] Paint walls. Paint colors are listed in the WBS definition for

4.1.2 Office Flooring [Work Package/Task] Install carpeting. Carpet selection is listed in the WBS definition for

4.2 Meeting Rooms (x2)

4.2.1 Meeting Room Walls [Work Package/Task] Frame offices in accordance with the DSD. [Work Package/Task] Install Drywall in accordance with the DSD. [Work Package/Task] Paint walls. Paint colors are listed in the WBS definition for [Work Package/Task] Mount white boards on left and right walls in accordance with WBS definition for

4.2.2 Meeting Room Flooring [Work Package/Task] Install carpeting. Carpet selection is listed in the WBS definition for

4.3 Break Room (x1)

4.4 Restrooms (x2)

4.4.1 Men's restroom

4.4.2 Women's restroom

5.0 Electrical Services

5.1 Main Power Line to Building

5.1.1 [Work Package/Task] run main power line to building.

5.2 Main Breaker Box

5.2.1 [Work Package/Task] install main breaker box.

5.2.2 [Work Package/Task] install building circuit breakers.

5.3 Exterior building electrical services

5.4 Interior building electrical services

6.0 Plumbing Services

7.0 Interior Doors and Windows


Last Word

A comprehensive, detailed, and accurate WBS can determine the success of a project. It provides the foundation for all project management work, including, planning, cost and effort estimation, resource allocation, and scheduling. Therefore, a PM and the team must make creating the WBS as important as the project itself. Why? Because it is the representation of the entirety of the end result: a product that achieves the goals and objectives or does not.



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  1. Project Management Institute A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK), 5th Edition. Newtown Square: Project Management Institute, Inc., 2013.

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