Steps to Developing a Work Breakdown Structure

The Project Manager’s first step is creating the work breakdown structure (WBS), a step that then enables subsequent planning of the work processes and schedule for accomplishing the project. After the WBS is developed, reviewed, and finalized, the structure is evaluated to determine the processes needed along with the schedule and costs required to achieve each of the identified goals. Although the WBS is created at the beginning of the project planning process, it must be constant throughout project performance. Even though the task activity schedules, budgeted costs, and actual costs will change, the projects objectives will remain constant—unless, of course, there is a complete revision to the project’s objective and final deliverable.

Careful consideration of objectives and building the WBS to identify those objectives during project initiation are critical to the planning and management process. Identifying the project objectives lends itself to a top-down approach because the project’s primary objective or end product is the first data point known by the project team. Start building the WBS with Level 1, the top objective, and then continue by identifying subsequent levels (Levels 2 and below). Consider the complexity of the project complexity and the expected dollar value to decide how many levels are required for a specific WBS. This task requires the managers and planners to carefully consider the required outcomes of the various tasks at increasingly more detailed levels to achieve the primary objective. It is important to move in a hierarchical fashion with Level 2 of the WBS created before moving down to Level 3. Follow this process until the entire WBS is completed and ready to be reviewed. Project managers generally want the WBS broken down below Level 3, especially for a complex project. Having this detail allows managers at all levels to closely monitor efforts within their respective spans of control.

The bottom level of the WBS consists of work packages that represent the efforts and objectives of a small team working on a specific outcome. The work packages at the lowest level of detail in the WBS roll up to elements that are definable outcomes or completed sub-products. These elements then comprise a larger part of the final products that were defined at the top of the WBS.

The project team creates the project WBS by identifying the major functional deliverables and subdividing them into smaller systems and sub-deliverables. These sub-deliverables are further broken down until a single person can be assigned. At this level, the specific work packages required to produce the sub-deliverable are identified and grouped together. The work package represents the list of tasks required to produce the specific unit of work. In detailed project schedules, the tasks under the work package are the activities people must complete by a specific time, within a specific level of effort, and within a specific budget.

From a cost perspective, these work packages are usually grouped and assigned to a specific department or cost account. These departments or cost accounts are defined in an organizational breakdown structure and allocated a budget to produce the specific required deliverables. By integrating the cost accounts from the organizational breakdown structure and the project’s WBS, the entire organization can track financial progress and project performance. It is important to develop a WBS that specifically defines products, sub-products, and services.

Every WBS element is assigned a schedule and dollar budget. These elements are used to evaluate progress against the objective throughout its period of performance. Problem areas can be identified and process changes or additional resources can be applied to correct problems as they are encountered.

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