Editor’s note: The article was updated in April 2018. Originally published in May 2016.
Having an effective and efficient project or workflow management system in place is important for any company in the business for creating something new and useful. There are countless steps, multiple team members and a potentially endless set of features at play. With so many moving parts, it’s important to have a system in place that will ensure thorough completion while optimizing efficiency and resources.
With any project, a proper scope needs to be created in order to keep it on time, on budget and completed in full. An efficient way to create a project scope is through the process known as a work breakdown structure, or WBS. A work breakdown structure takes a highly involved project, activity or design and breaks it down into smaller manageable sections that can be easily allocated and tracked to completion. It is performed before any cost and time estimation is fully determined. In fact, the work breakdown structure is what determines the estimated time and money required to complete the desired outcome. This is also what is known as the project schedule.
What Is a Work Breakdown Structure?
A work breakdown structure is a scope management process that is entirely deliverable-oriented. It is based on an order of tasks that must be completed to eventually arrive at the final product. The work breakdown structure aims to keep all project members on task and clearly focused on the purpose of the project. It accomplishes this through a clearly and concisely written statement of work, followed by a dissection of the work required.
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A work breakdown structure is created at the beginning of the project’s conception and determines each deliverable and their respective timeline before any work begins. A WBS approach helps further identify individual tasks among those deliverables, which can be completed regardless of the completion of other tasks. This way your project avoids succumbing to bottlenecks that occur when item B can’t happen until item A is done. If your team has done an effective tasks breakdown job, then the sum of these tasks is what eventually encompasses the complete scope of work.
While some project managers or leaders are more detail-oriented, there are also some who are more big-picture thinkers. The work breakdown structure approach helps cater to both of these mindsets all the way along the project planning process and development phase. Because it is a visual form of planning, it easily communicates the complete project with all assigned team members. This is why project managers shouldn’t neglect the importance of a work breakdown structure.
Work Breakdown Structure Elements
The WBS hierarchical nature means that there are specific levels or components that must be included to make the project easier to manage. Without each of these components addressed and accounted for, it isn’t a true work breakdown structure; and has the following primary components:
- Statement of work or project vision
- Phases – dependent on the size of the project
- Deliverables that can be completed in full along the way
- Tasks that comprise each deliverable
Depending on the organization, there may be different terminology used at each level. Phases are sometimes referred to as entries or activities, and tasks may be referred to as subtasks or work packages.
How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure
There is a definite way to execute a work breakdown structure so it achieves its purpose and functions properly. Organize the steps in the project scope by beginning with the project statement or vision at the top of the hierarchy. You then work your way down through the main deliverables of the project and outline unique tasks that will comprise those deliverables.
For example, a statement of work may be something like “Develop a company-wide widget that tracks numbers of hours spent on X activity.” Then you determine which deliverables you need to make this happen, such as an interactive calendar with input functions, a reporting tool, and a warning system.
In terms of resource allocation and team involvement, the WBS begins with heavy group involvement at the top level(s) and finishes with assigning individual team members to tasks at the lower level(s). In essence, the whole team should be involved in the planning process, defining the vision and outlining the deliverables. However, individuals are responsible for the actual execution of each task.
Here are the basic steps to follow in creating a WBS:
Describe the Statement of Work
The statement of work is a sentence or paragraph that describes the vision and function of the project in its completed form. This portion of the WBS is the guiding big picture of the project and is generally developed by the entire project team.
Determine Any Necessary Project Phases
After the statement of work is complete, the following tier of the hierarchy will be inputting each of the phases. Depending on the nature of the project, it may be necessary to segment the scope into multiple phases. Sometimes there is only a single phase and other times there are two, three or even more phases. This often depends on time frame and budget, but can also depend on the project’s requirements. Some projects just make more sense in phases, such as pre and post-production.
Develop the Deliverables of Each Phase
In the second or third tier of the hierarchy, outline each of the deliverables that must be completed within each phase. Each phase should have an end result or deliverable that must be accomplished before moving on to the next. The deliverable should also have its own statement describing its purpose or function in the project’s outcome.
Segment Deliverables in Manageable Sections or Tasks
Once the deliverables have been stated, add another tier to the hierarchy that describes each of the tasks required to complete each deliverable. This is a granular level where tasks breakdown should be detailed. These tasks should be designed as work packages, or sections, that can be easily managed by one team member or, in some cases, a small group of members.
Assign Each Manageable Section
Finally, the last section of the hierarchy is the assignment of each manageable section to the appropriate team members. These members will be responsible for the tasks involved in each section of work, ultimately leading to the corresponding deliverable. A time frame is set for each section. Its progress is tracked by whether or not the deliverable has been completed.
An additional step may include the circumstance when extra requested items are added to the project scope after the project has started. The work breakdown structure can also be used quickly and effectively in this scenario to create a simple set of described deliverables for the new items without having to build a completely new work breakdown structure. It also allows flexibility in adjusting the estimated time and costs of the project.
Benefits of Work Breakdown Structure
WBS is a widely used method of project planning and management. When we look at the enormous number of benefits it provides, it’s easy to see why it has become such a popular planning tool, especially in software development.
Here are some of the most important benefits of the work breakdown structure in project management efficiency:
Allows for Creativity
Though software development is a very analytical area, it is also an opportunity to be extremely creative. Because a work breakdown structure is used to define the project’s vision and plan its development, this leaves team members with ample room to get creative in how the project will unfold. Begin this creative process early on in the planning stages so it’s easier to consider all ideas from the start.
Whether the project is performed internally or directly for clients, a work breakdown structure communicates everything from the get-go: vision, details, assigned team members. It also maintains communication as the project goes along, which is essential in keeping everyone in the loop and tasks on track.
Maintains the Vision at the Forefront
Often a project becomes so convoluted that it’s easy to forget what the purpose of it was in the first place. A work breakdown structure that begins with a clear statement of work helps keep all team members focused on the end-goal. It mitigates the chance that unnecessary work will be performed because the scope has been clearly defined.
In the same respect that the work breakdown structure is ideal for big-picture thinking, it’s also exceptional at taking into account the details which will comprise the ultimate vision. As each detail is meticulously accounted for, nothing gets lost as the project is executed.
Prevents Future Problems
Once the project is signed off or goes live, problems can occur whereby further requirements are needed. This involves opening up the project or creating a new one to complete additional needs that weren’t originally included. A work breakdown structure mitigates this from happening by taking into consideration all details of all tasks before execution. It also leaves room for flexibility should new items arise.
Collects and Organizes Ideas
The work breakdown structure is ideal for brainstorming and coming up with ideas of what to include in the project. Because it is such an involved planning process, it makes it easy to list all the ideas and then scratch out the unnecessary ones as the plan becomes clearer and more succinct.
Risk is mitigated and managed from the beginning when using the work breakdown structure. The WBS is performed before any work has begun in order to anticipate all requirements of the project. This includes resource allocation like time, money and labor. The process of performing the work breakdown structure helps the team think about the areas of potential risk and account for them in the planning phase.
When a project is broken down into manageable tasks or packages, it becomes a lot easier to assign these to the appropriate individual. This helps your team plan around other work that needs to be completed outside of the project in question.
Keeps the Project on Budget
A properly performed work breakdown structure is the guide to project scheduling and budgeting. Each manageable task will ideally have an associated cost, whether it’s in money or time.
Keeps the Project on Schedule
As the project runs along, it becomes easy to identify which of the deliverables are falling behind schedule. If items fall too far behind, it becomes obvious where shifts need to occur without it affecting all other deliverables.
Once the project begins on the basis of a work breakdown structure, it’s easy to collect data on the project’s progression. Is it on schedule? What outstanding tasks are there to be completed? Did we follow the project’s budget? Reports can then be generated to assess the project’s evolution. This maintains accountability internally and/or to the client.
Flexible for a Variety of Teams
The work breakdown structure approach has been proven to work in a number of different environments. Whether it’s a small team or a large one, the WBS will always support project execution. It’s also an excellent system for remote teams as it can be performed through a variety of digital programs. The work breakdown structure is also a wonderful client-engagement tool. It brings them into the team atmosphere and helps them better understand the planning process.
Who Should Use a Work Breakdown Structure?
Traditionally, work breakdown structures have been used in residential, commercial and industrial construction projects. This project management process is implemented as a means of formulating the most accurate estimate possible. It also gives the customer or investor a better idea of everything that goes into building the project in order to justify the estimate.
Since the rise in demand of software development across any number of organizations, work breakdown structures have been applied to this industry and they’ve become incredibly useful. Software development, like construction, is performed by taking a vision or idea and actually creating it based on a list of requirements. This makes WBS an ideal process for software development teams.
Creative and Technical Teams
The benefits of work breakdown structure can be used by organizations of any shape and size. Teams with creative members will benefit from the work breakdown structure because it gives them an opportunity to brainstorm together. On the other hand, if your team is more technically focused, then this process is also effective. Work breakdown structures help keep an analytical perspective of not only the project’s scope of work, but also its progression.
Teams Dealing Directly With Clients
Of course, if you’re developing software for a client, then the work breakdown structure is an important tool to use in ensuring their needs are met. It shows that your team is actively working to meet all requirements in an appropriately estimated amount of time. It also helps build the client’s confidence in your team.
Teams Working on Internal Projects
Conversely, work breakdown structures are great to use as an internal project management tool. It helps pitch the project idea to upper levels of management. It also helps include all departments and is an excellent communication tool of the project’s vision.
The reality of today’s world is that many team members live and work remotely. Specialized software programs can easily help connect remote team members building a work breakdown structure. As it is updated in real time upon completion, remote team members should never be out of the loop.
Tips for Creating an Effective Work Breakdown Structure
If your team has decided that this project management process is right for you, then you’ll want it to be as effective as possible. When creating a work breakdown structure, keep in mind the following rules and guidelines:
100 percent rule: The work breakdown structure lists 100 percent of the work that is to be completed. It doesn’t leave anything out. It is what it is and you must strive to think of everything before getting started as much as possible.
Mutually exclusive tasks: When building out tasks or work packages, remember that each task is mutually exclusive, meaning it is its own section of work to be completed in full. In other words, ideally one person independently performs the task.
Accept non-balanced projects: If different deliverables have a different number of tasks or subtasks, this is acceptable. It isn’t important to have balance along the lower level of the hierarchy in terms of item numbers.
Think of it as a map: If you and your team always keep in mind that a work breakdown structure is a map or flow chart of the project, it will help to ensure full consideration of all required tasks.
Use color-coding: For visual teams, use color-codes to determine the status of each deliverable. Associate by color which items are late, at-risk, on-target and complete. This way your team can produce a color map to help identify the areas that need improvement during project development.
Ensure there is no duplication: At the lowest level of the work breakdown structure, individual work packages or tasks should be unique. Double check that there is no duplicated effort anywhere. Ensure that none of these tasks could have been placed under another deliverable somewhere else.
Be flexible: As much as you think you’ve thought of everything, it’s sometimes not the case. Plan for flexibility in time frames by padding them a bit more. This adds relief in case some tasks take longer than anticipated. On the other hand, some tasks may take less time than budgeted. Being flexible with time allows your plan to balance itself out a bit better.
Anticipate challenges: The ability to anticipate potential challenges is how all successful plans unfold. You and your team must picture your plan’s execution in the future and work backwards to anticipate where things may go wrong. Remember, projects go wrong very often. Then, plan for these in the scheduling and dividing of tasks.
Investing in the Planning Process
Creating a work breakdown structure is not a simple task. It requires a tremendous amount of focus and attention. It can be painstaking and meticulous. However, it is a crucial procedure to implement at the outset of any major, or even minor, software development project. The ultimate goal of the work breakdown structure is to segment a complex project into smaller, more manageable portions. Work breakdown structures do this by deconstructing each step of the project and taking into consideration all tasks that will be required to achieve the desired outcome. This system not only mitigates the risk, it also provides a clear structure that accurately estimates time and costs. It’s a procedure that gets the whole team involved and leaves plenty of room for creativity.
WBS and Kanban
Can you use Kanban in order to apply a work breakdown structure? You may hear different opinions, but actually you can.
Kanban proved to be probably the most effective way to visualize work, increase overall productivity and efficiency, and reduce wasteful activities.
More or less you can use a portfolio approach on a Kanban board, so you can visualize your WBS. Indeed, a Kanban board will be a much more convenient way, because it will give you the chance to track every task, see everything in one place, meet deadlines and spot blockers and bottlenecks.
You may hear some critics saying that WBS and Kanban are not compatible. However Kanban may be in favor of any workflow. It doesn’t matter if we talk about continuous flow or fixed projects.
While it may require an investment in time to perform a proper work breakdown structure, it will save your team resources in the end once the projects get underway. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Planning a software development project by using a work breakdown structure can help your team improve productivity and achieve success. Follow the steps, guidelines, and tips above and your team will begin to see great results with the work breakdown structure as you continue to use it for managing projects.