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10 WBS Tips for a Smoother Planning Process

written by: N Nayab • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 5/18/2011

A work breakdown structure (WBS) defines and groups a project's discrete work elements or tasks in a way that helps organize and define the total work scope of the project. These WBS tips make clear the detailed work requirement of the project and identifies deliverables.

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    1. Confining WBS to Deliverables and Activities

    WBS Tips A good work breakdown structure (WBS) includes only deliverables and activities.

    The best approach in WBS is placing deliverables as summary activities and breaking down these summary activities into detailed activities based on the work required to meet such deliverables. Listing out the requirements that describe the WBS deliverables in the detailed activity is a bad practice and makes the WBS ineffective.

    Image Credit: Lund

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    2. Breakdown of Summary Activities to Detailed Activities

    A work breakdown structure (WBS) consists of summary activities and detailed activities. A summary activity is a broad work component that must be broken down further. A detailed activity is the most specific work component, with no possibility of breaking it down further.

    Among the most useful WBS tips is to break the summary activity into the most detailed extent possible, and to a minimum of two detailed activities. Many project managers make the mistake of breaking down one summary activity into only one activity at the next level. This leaves the detailed activity vague and blunts the effectiveness of the WBS.

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    3. Action Oriented Detailed Activities

    A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) best practice is to make the detailed activities derived from summary activities action oriented.

    For instance, instead of describing a detailed activity as "meeting," a better description is "schedule a weekly meeting," and instead of having a detailed activity as "testing plan," a better approach is to list it as "create testing plan."

    Making detailed activities action oriented will:

    • allow moving detailed activities into schedules or the next level in the WBS without change in wordings that create confusion.
    • remove confusion. For instance, if a detailed activity is "testing plan" it could mean, for instance either “create testing plan" or “review testing plan." Making the detailed activity action oriented and describing it as "create testing plan" removes such confusion.

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    4. Summary Activities

    Another WBS tip is including summary activities as milestones or markers signifying the competition of a set of deliverables. Indicating the completion of a summary activity in the WBS schedule denotes completion of all the underlying detailed activities.

    Including summary activities as milestones helps keep track of tasks better, for otherwise, workers would waste time reporting many small tasks, and managers would waste time keeping track of the countless small tasks.

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    5. WBS vs Task List

    Many project managers fail to understand the difference between a task list and a WBS, and often mistake the WBS as a task list. A task list focus on “how," “who," and “when" of specific tasks whereas the WBS focus on the “what" or the deliverables of the project.

    Managers who convert the WBS into a “to do" task list fail to grasp the big picture of the project and, thereby, devalue the scope and potential of WBS.

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    6. WBS Organization

    WBS Tips One of the best WBS tips is to organize the WBS structure based on the deliverables or the desired output of the project. Many managers organize the WBS based on inputs, resources used, or organizational structure. These approaches take the focus away from the project or WBS deliverables and contribute either to omission of scope, or induce scope bloat, meaning inclusion of unnecessary items.

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    7. WBS Dictionaries

    WBS for large projects result in generation of hundreds or even thousands of detailed work components, activities, and deliverables, making effective tracking difficult.

    Maintaining a WBS dictionary to keep track of the summary of important information such as the WBS numeric identifier, a short description, and the estimated effort, help the project manager retain control and track progress.

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    8. WBS Traceability

    The WBS is the foundation for the planning processes associated with the project. In cases of scope creep, the WBS will require updating to incorporate the additional project requirements. A good WBS has an built-in mechanism to make such changes by ensuring traceability of all the individual work components in the WBS by incorporating a good numbering system.

    Ensuring traceability through a good numbering system helps to:

    • Identify all the relevant information about some aspect of a scope.
    • Finds all places in project documentation that requires analysis and updates in cases of changes to project scope.
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    9. The 100 Percent Rule

    While ensuring traceability in a WBS helps deal with scope creep effectively, a WBS first needs to adhere to the 100 percent rule, which means that the WBS caters to 100 percent of the project scope.

    Some project managers tend to provide WBS with the capability to deliver 110 percent of the project scope to filter in some scope creep. This is not a good practice, for this encourages scope creep and its resultant problems.

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    10. Project Team Involvement

    The hallmark of a good WBS is involvement of all team members associated with the project. Involvement of project team members in WBS preparation helps in many ways.

    • The members of the project team posses first hand knowledge of the specifics of each deliverable that helps to break down summary activity into detailed activity in the best possible way.
    • Involvement of individual members gives them a sense of ownership, thereby increasing their commitment and dedication.
    • Involvement of the project team helps in reaping the benefits of shared expertise, experience, and creative thinking.

    Following these ten WBS tips helps in the development of a robust WBS and will contribute to the success of the project.

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