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An introduction to the WBS project management approach

Big achievements are made of small and consistent steps forward. This is the core principle of work breakdown structure (WBS) project management that breaks down large projects into achievable steps and deliverables. Work breakdown structure is a project management approach that is highly effective. This article is an introduction to this approach. It will elevate, step by step, your knowledge of WBS project management.

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What is a work breakdown structure (WBS) in project management?

A definition of WBS project management

WBS is an approach to project management that breaks down the different tasks of a project. WBS translates into a visual that lays out the deliverables of a project. It deconstructs large tasks into smaller chunks and makes the overall project more digestible for project teams. WBS project management often takes the form of a diagram created and owned by the assigned project manager. The diagram highlights all the steps of the project in each phase. It details all the actions that need to take place in the project plan, highlights the tasks’ owners and the project deliverables. Often, project managers use tools such as Gantt charts to deliver the WBS approach.

Characteristics and key components of a work breakdown structure

WBS is an approach that is focussed on deliverables. Each level or step of the project requires the delivery of a document or several documents. This should be made clear in the project plan and the list of deliverables should be assigned to each step. The deliverables are hierarchically positioned on the plan. This means that for a step to be finalised, all the tasks and associated deliverables need to be completed before the step can be marked as completed.

Key mechanisms of WBS

The work breakdown structure approach is made up of key mechanisms or elements. Knowing them will make you more familiar with the approach and help you implement it.

The project scope

The project scope is a description of the project. It includes the objectives, tasks, stakeholders, project plan and more. In a way, it is a summary of the project and often translates into a project charter.

The project schedule

The project schedule is a plan. It lays out the timelines of the project and defines when actions should be completed.

The list of stakeholders

To ensure a project runs smoothly, a list of stakeholders with their roles and responsibilities is essential. It builds accountability.

The project directory

The purpose of the project directory is to ensure everyone is clear on the terminology used for the project. It provides clarity on the documentation and nomenclature being used.

The delivery package

With every project, and particularly with those that use the WBS approach, there are a set of deliverables or documentation. This documentation forms a package that needs to be saved in a place that is accessible to all stakeholders for smooth collaboration.

The control accounts

Control accounts help keep track of the project progress. When a group of deliverables that form a key step for the project are completed, the step can be marked as completed. It helps the project team understand the status of the project.

Project tasks

As its names explains, the project tasks are the actions that need to take place. They are associated with their predicted duration, description, owner and any dependency they may have.

Why using WBS in project management increases efficiencies

The WBS approach to project management brings many benefits. For project managers, it helps identify and create the project steps. By breaking the project into smaller chunks of work, it provides a sense of relief and makes the overall task seem more achievable. It also helps understand the project scope and thus allocate resources accordingly. WBS project management will make it easier to put together the:

  • Project charter;
  • Project plan;
  • Project budgeting;
  • Resource allocation or stakeholders list;
  • Identification of risks or potential scope creep to watch out for;
  • Detailed task lists and dependencies between them.

The approach provides a strong structure to the project and therefore helps avoid missed deadlines and other project pitfalls. It forms a roadmap that provides clarity on what needs to take place for the success of the project.

Different types of WBS

There are different ways to approach WBS and different types of WBS. The type of project will determine which approach is best. Project managers should keep in mind that the goal of the approach is to visualise the hierarchy of the project and lay out the tasks that need to take place.

The formats that can be used for WBS

Below are some work breakdown structure format examples for project managers:

Work breakdown structure spreadsheet

The classic spreadsheet is often a good way to start with the WBS approach. The phases of the project and tasks are noted in a column and associated with deliverables.

Work breakdown chart

A diagram workflow is also possible. Using a flow chart provides good visibility of the state of play of the project.

Work breakdown list

A simple task list may work. This is particularly the case for smaller or more straightforward projects that need a light structure. Key steps can be highlighted with smaller tasks underneath them.

Work breakdown Gantt chart

Project managers often use Gantt charts. The solution has proven effectiveness and is ideal for complex projects. It is a combination of the spreadsheet and a timeline. Visually, it allows to understand the extent of the project with the list of tasks. It is also a true asset to pinpoint and communicate dependencies between tasks.

The types of WBS

There are also different types of WBS. Below is an introduction to these different types. Knowing them and understanding their most appropriate use will help project managers decide what will work best for their project.

The WBS based on deliverables

As the title implies, this approach focusses on the deliverables that are part of the project plan. All documentation is classified by importance and positioned in the project timeline. The emphasis is on the deliverables.

The WBS based on project phases

This WBS approach is common in project management. It focusses on the different phases of the project with for example, project initiation, analysis, recommendations, solution build, etc.

The WBS based on responsibilities

This approach focusses on the project stakeholders and the responsibilities assigned to them. It enhances responsibilities and ownership of the tasks.

Eight steps to building a WBS approach for your project and using it effectively

If you are wondering how to start your project with WBS, follow the eight steps below. These will guide you towards the effective use of work breakdown structure.

Step 1: Clearly identify the project goals and desired outcomes

Your first step is to clearly define the project. Understand the objective and the desired outcomes. Keep it simple when defining the goal. This will help create the project scope and avoid scope creep.

Step 2: Define the project scope

Once the objectives are clear, define the scope of the project. At this stage, watch out for scope creep and make sure you set boundaries to the project. Making this clear from the start will help manage stakeholders’ expectations.

Step 3: List the project deliverables for success

There are two types of deliverables when working on a project. Some deliverables are part of the objective itself, for example, if you are developing a prototype. Others are project management deliverables. They help the project manager get the project across the line. For example, a project plan or project charter are project management deliverables. List the deliverables that are necessary for a successful project.

Step 4: Identify core steps or milestones and pinpoint any dependencies

Define the different key milestones of your project. Doing so will create key steps and form the framework of the project with associated deliverables.

Step 5: Break down each step into smaller chunks of work

Break down each milestone into smaller tasks and classify them hierarchically. This is the core principle of WBS project management. Each level is broken down into smaller tasks.

Step 6: Confirm the project team

Based on your findings, identify or extend the project team and make sure everyone is aware of their responsibilities.

Step 7: Build the project plan

Most project plans take the form of a Gantt chart. It will show the activities and owners on a timeline and make it easy to visualise the tasks that need to take place.

Step 8: Monitor the project and reevaluate the WBS

There are often unexpected changes during a project. For this reason, the project manager needs to continuously reevaluate the project plan and the WBS might see more tasks added to it.

A work breakdown structure is a good way to approach project management. The approach assists project managers in structuring the project and provides essential clarity on the steps that need to take place. Read on for more content and tips on how to improve efficiency in your business:

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