Importance of WBS for a Project and Project Manager

WBS means Work Breakdown Structure, where we break the work in small doable work units to the extent when the requirements of every work unit can be understood easily. This level of work unit is called 'Work Package'. These may further be divided to a level, when these become assignable to one resource. Eventually it grows in a tree like structure where each leaf is a reasonably small and manageable work items. WBS is an essential part of Project Management and Execution. Project Managers uses it for managing the project efficiently. Good Project Managers keep breaking the work in smaller units till they feel a control over the requirements and find the small assignable units of work. And as they get comfortable with requirements, they can estimate the efforts reasonably. This division further help them in task planning and assignment, and network diagram also. The general structure of WBS is like

  • S. No. 
    • Feature
      • Sub Feature
        • Sub feature (Generally can be divided from 2 to 5 levels)
          • Task (Not very common, mostly we go till sub-features in WBS)
  • S. No
    • Feature
      • Sub Feature
  • ..... 

There are a few points which we should consider while defining the WBS, these are:

  • WBS generally varies from 2 to 5 level of hierarchy
  • WBS defines the complete project scope, i.e. any work item which is required to complete the project should be part of WBS.
  • WBS should reflect the completion criteria for the project requirements. So it should help to identify that we are done with the work, when each activity defined with WBS is marked as done.  
  • WBS should be granular enough to give control over the work items. There is no harm if we have hundreds of work packages in WBS. This level of detail may be necessary and important for understanding and executing the work.
  • Work packages should always be named as 'Verb' + 'Noun'. So the name should be like 'Integrate Payment Gateway', rather than 'Payment Gateway' which can be understood like understand payment gateway, access payment gateway or anything else. So this approach ensure that there won't be any communication gap in meaning. 
Creating a WBS is an art. It is not an easy job to break the requirements in features, and sub-features. It needs a good level of experience in WBS, and in respective domain. Managers should be very careful while creating the WBS, as a wrong set of work packages and their hierarchy can disturb whole project planning, execution and delivery. I personally recommend that WBS should not be finalized independently, however it is always good to have a brainstorming with team to design a good WBS and get it reviewed by them. More experience and focused thinking you will apply to this process, more will be the quality of outcome.
    I managed a number of projects of various sizes, and WBS played an important role in almost every project. It is almost impossible to manage the project without defining Work Breakdown Structure for the work in hand. It helps almost at every step of project like:

    • Project Scope Definition
      • Once you are ready with multi-level feature and sub-features tree, you can be very clear with the requirements for each work package. 
      • This will help to understand the functionality in great detail and to find out any queries which can affect the development. These queries can be shared with client in initial stage itself and hence hence help to define and bound the scope properly . 
    • Effort and Cost Estimation 
      • The simple rule for good estimation is to break the work in smallest possible unit and then estimate the efforts. Reason is that a granular structure helps to understand the requirements completely and that further help to calculate the efforts efficiently for its implementation. 
      • Every effort estimate is merely an approximation of efforts which used to have some deviation from actual efforts. So if you have a smaller work unit in hand to estimate, it is much easier to visualize the task items for it and lesser chances to miss anything. If we have larger work unit to estimate, there are chances that we overlook some tasks or assume more efforts considering the big size of work item.  
    • Work Planning and Allocation
      • Once we have smaller work units in hand, we can allocate these to the resources easily. 
      • It also helps to identify the right resource for a work unit considering the skills and requirements.
      •  It also facilitate to have a control at granular level by allocating very small unit of deliverables to a team member. 
    • Activity Management and their Networking
      • Once we have list of defined activities at granular level, we can easily manage. 
      • It also helps in drawing the network of activity implementation after considering their dependencies on each other. This way, we can chart out the critical path of project and various dependencies in project execution.
      • Dependency identification helps a lot in task planning and sequencing so that no resource need to wait at any point of time for other work item.  
    • Change Management and Risk Management
      • In case of any change request, manager can easily evaluate the effect of new change by adding the new work items in WBS. It will reflect the changes in network diagram, the schedules and the work allocation. 
      • Once we have the data for effect of change on dependencies, schedule and work allocation; we can analyze the effect of change on project.
      • This way, it also reduces the risk. Moreover we have already reduced the risk by understanding the requirements clearly and planning the work efficiently.   
    • Communication Management
      • Once we are clear with the requirements with WBS, we shall be able to communicate more clearly with all the stakeholders. 
      • Like it helps in communicating the work responsibilities to the team members. 
      • It helps in communicating with client for the scope.
      • It helps in communicating with vendors for the intermediate supply
      • It helps in communicating with QA team with exact requirements and the schedule
      • It helps in communicating with PMO or Management for execution and delivery plans
    • Performance Management
      • With granular level of Work Packages, work estimates used to be more reasonable and the allocation will be more efficient with independently owned work items and clearly defined requirements. 
      • Once we are able to assign the responsibilities clearly to team member, it is easy to evaluate their outcome efficiently and to make them understand that where is the gap in expectations.
    • Quality Management
      • As we are clear with requirements, the quality checks will be more efficients. 
      • With granular level of work assignments, quality checks can be placed with same granularity and each independent work item can be tested individually before merging it with other work.  
    • Vendor Management
      • If we are ready with planning, scheduling and networking, we knows that what kind of services are required at which stage of execution. It helps us to manage the vendors efficiently.    
    So the above details show that WBS helps the Project and Project Manager in many aspect and in almost all the stages of project.

    As WBS helps in defining the scope for the project, so once you convert the project requirements into WBS; you are actually ready with the project scope statement.We can also add certain level of understanding description and assumptions to it. It is always good to share the WBS along with understanding description and assumptions with the client. It will ensure to pass our scope understanding to client and will help to avoid any gap later.

    Sometimes work packages can be grouped at a higher level which is called 'Control Account'. It is generally used for budgeting/costing purpose.

    If we talk about Agile development methodologies like SCRUM, it actually works on same concept by defining everything in Product Backlog, and then prioritize the work in smaller delivery phases as per client requirements. But it always emphasis to break the work items in smallest possible unit like from few hours to 5 days maximum. So conceptually WBS is working here also.

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