Work Breakdown Breakdown

April 16, 2010 by
Filed under: Process, Project management 

One of the most useful tools to support consistency across projects is also one of the most misunderstood and widely overloaded tools: the work breakdown structure. Let’s tear this thing apart and look inside.

First off, it is important to recognize that this WBS is a Work Breakdown Structure, not a Work Breakdown Schedule. What it is not is just as important as what it is. It is not a schedule, and it carries no information about relationships between items in it, or how many, or how much effort, or who would do it, or any of that stuff. It is simply an organized list of things that would be relevant in a project of this type. From that perspective, you would have a very different WBS for planning a party than you would for developing a new software product.

You would not, however, have a different WBS for planning this party one week and for that party next week. One of the strengths of a WBS is that it provides continuity across different projects of the same type, making sure that you leverage past experience so that you don’t drop the same ball twice on the same type of project. It is a collection of memory joggers to make sure you remember everything that is reasonable to expect for this type of thing, and nothing more.

Here’s an example we’re all familiar with, minus the jargon that we seem to need in the profession of project management.

We’ve all seen grocery shopping list reminders. Some of you might have one on your fridge, or perhaps a pad of these things that allows you to check off items before you head to the store. There might be a section for meats (with a list of different things below it), a similar section for vegetables, one for breads, dairy, canned goods, and so on. This is a Work Breakdown Structure. It doesn’t tell you what you are going to do on this trip to the store, but it helps you remember the things you might want to get. It’s often got a hierarchy that collects similar items into groups – that’s the ‘structure’ part.

A good one is relevant for all types of projects of this nature – and there are many different trips to the grocery store you could imagine. There’s the student’ trip that includes a few cases of ramen noodles, some beer and some munchies, all the way up to the daily trip needed by a fancy restaurant that might include getting to the market at 5 in the morning to choose from the freshest selections of fish and produce. Two very different projects, one supporting reminder list. Neither would likely involve getting every item that is on the list, and that’s OK.

One thing to note from being involved in many project management courses (giving and receiving). The WBS is usually introduced in line with all the other things that are produced for the project (such as a charter, a scope document, and so on), but rarely do we highlight the distinction that in the real world, we should be inheriting one for our project, not building a new one each time through. This knowledge helps put things in their proper context and clarifies the reasonable use of a WBS. While it’s good to go through the exercise of building one, that should not be a standard part of initiating and planning a project.

Finally, and to bring the value of a WBS full circle, when the project is done, we revisit the WBS one more time. Not as a reference document this time, but as an artifact that we might want to modify based on our experience on this project. If there was anything we missed this time around that we should be watching for next time, add it to the WBS so next time we won’t make the same mistake.

Our WBS gets better all the time, and in turn, so do our projects. Keep it simple, and it will remain effective. Have you got a shopping list for the projects you work on?– JB

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