Rome wasn’t built in a day. It would have been split into manageable chunks with deliverables ticked off one by one. Otherwise, the gladiators would have fought in half-built, over-budget colosseums.
That’s what a work breakdown structure does for you. It breaks down big tasks into smaller, more manageable ones - making a complex project a series of simpler deliverables.
Let’s get into what a WBS is and how you can leverage the technique for success. Look out for templates and examples.
Work Breakdown Structure is a visual project management technique for tracking and aligning a project's scope of work, project budget, and schedule.
It breaks down your entire project into small manageable tasks so that the project manager and their team members can get work done on time and on budget.
"Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all."
Here's a ready-to-use work breakdown structure template for your construction project:
Here are the key elements that make up a sound WBS:
Content you might like: check out the best accounting software for construction.
A WBS makes the project easier to manage and you have three to choose from. None are inherently better. It’s about choosing the right one for the project.
Whatever you choose will link to your cost breakdown structure (CBS), which uses codes to manage project costs - more about those here.
In deliverable-based WBS, you break down the project scope with a hierarchical decomposition approach.
In simple terms, this means you split the large project into smaller, more manageable bits and create a hierarchy. Each level represents a progressively more detailed breakdown of the deliverables.
For example, you might have the overall goal or objective at the top. The next level down will be small components or phases, which will be broken into tasks and deliverables on the level down.
This means you create a work package and organise them into control accounts. It's suitable for projects with specific to-dos and quick turnarounds.
Here's a deliverable-based WBS example for the residential construction project:
Here’s what that looks like with the terminology we spoke about before.
In a phase-based WBS, you create work packages with tasks by using the project phases. In the example below, there are five elements (phases):
These phases are pretty standard but you can adapt them to your needs. Below level two elements are the deliverables for each phase - the control accounts, which you’d break down into work packages.
It doesn’t matter what type of WBS you choose, the lower levels are always deliverables.
Here's a phase-based WBS example for a piping project:
A responsibility-based WBS is created on the organisational chart of project participants, which consists of teams and task owners.
The second WBS level will include the ownership structure and the lower levels identify project deliverables.
Here's a responsibility-based WBS example for an online shop:
Construction projects are expensive, complex and long. That increases risk and makes the cost of failure a scary prospect.
That’s where the WBS steps in with a calming hand. Here’s how:
A construction project will have a complex scope that involves many tasks across the construction phases. Using a WBS, you can break down the project scope into manageable work packages with progress and cost tracking.
It’s easy (and understandable) to get overwhelmed when drafting a project plan from a project scope. By visually representing the work, you can strategise to optimise with a bird's eye view.
The WBS sticks to the project scope. Every work package should only include the work demanded by the parent task. This means you can avoid scope creep and ensure you only do the work you’re paid for - and get paid when extra work comes up by referring back to the WBS.
A WBS follows the 100% rule - which means it must include all project deliverables in the project scope across engineering, procurement, or construction.
This means you can easily track the progress and ensure work gets executed as per the project plan. It also helps with cost forecasting.
"The WBS ensures that you have 100% of the project covered or encapsulated under that work breakdown structure. Nothing is worse than missing a whole area of work and this can act as a checklist to help you ensure that you don't miss major elements of work."
- Tom Stephenson, PM Tips: What is a work breakdown structure
You can treat a WBS like a Gantt chart to visualise project progress and also track costs against elements, phases and deliverables.
There are plenty of formats available online to do this. It makes creating and sharing easy-to-understand reports a cinch.
A WBS software or tool simplifies and democratises project information for everyone.
Construction project teams can share updates in real-time, recognise any potential delays, and synchronise to take action. By speaking the same project language, you reduce to-and-fro communication and limit misunderstandings.
A WBS makes it easy to draft project management documents for SOPs and reporting. Based on status updates, you can modify project deliverables, milestones, and quality control expectations - and optimise on-ground execution accordingly.
Your typical WBS for construction has 3 main levels - the first is of the final project outcome, the middle-level lists project deliverables, and the bottom level includes the work packages for each parent task.
Here’s how to create WBS for a construction project: building a house.
Collect all the information on the construction project. This includes information like engineering studies, pre-design work, drawings, project financials, past project data, management objectives, sales proposals, supplier information, etc.
Using information from the first step, create the project charter, project budget and WBS dictionary. In our work breakdown structure example, our project objective is to construct a house.
Choose one out of the 3 WBS types discussed in this article. Then, decide on a WBS format from choices like kanban boards, Gantt charts, calendars or flowcharts.
In our construction WBS example, we have selected a phase-based WBS depicted using a tree diagram.
First, create a parent task list based on the WBS type chosen. For example, to construct a house, the WBS levels will look this -
Level 1: Construction of a house
Keep dividing the subtasks such that you get the lowest level of work that can be assigned to team members. These tasks should be discrete such that you can estimate their budgets, fix timelines, and track completion status.
In our example, we can create work packages for a few parent tasks:
On completion of the above 5 steps, you can design a simple tree diagram to get your construction Work Breakdown Structure for a house as follows:
The WBS doesn’t sit in a vacuum. Each step involves other companies, teams and people. Each one need to understand their role in the project and the WBS justifies their to-do list. There will be no ambiguity.
Include them early as they’re experts in their roles, meaning they can sense check and add value during the planning. By involving the stakeholders in the process, you also instill a sense of accountability.
Here is 10-point checklist to ensure your construction work breakdown structures are perfectly usable:
Getting the WBS wrong can derail the rest of your project management efforts. Since creating one is a team effort, as a project manager, you may face below challenges:
One of the biggest challenges we faced was resistance to change. Some team members were hesitant to adopt a new methodology, which resulted in delays in implementing WBS.
However, we overcame this challenge by providing training and support to our team members, which helped them understand the benefits of using WBS and how it could improve project management.
- Isaac Robertson, CEO of Total Shape
Grasping the WBS concept can be tricky and lead to push back. That’s why you need to get the buy-in and manage the process. The results speak for themselves.
"The WBS takes time to develop, and many organisations are under pressure to start their projects quickly. But taking the time to create a WBS upfront will save time and effort later in the project."
- Project Management Institute (PMI)
You will spend longer drafting a sound WBS for larger projects. It’s normal. But using templates, learning from past projects and establishing SOPs can reduce how long it takes.
Your WBS is the not the project schedule or programme of works - it just plays a role. Don’t overload the WBS with details and deadlines at this stage. Stick to the deliverables, not the sequencing.
Using inaccurate data for WBS can compound into larger issues and risks during the project. Make sure the information included is as accurate as possible. But also leave room for unforeseen deliverables.
Here’s a list of things you need to avoid when creating the work breakdown structure.
Give your project team clarity on the project scope and delivery expectations. Failing to onboard the team means the project manager cannot incorporate team insights and feedback into the WBS structure.
You waste serious time when adding the minutest of tasks to the WBS. Same goes for going overboard. Yes, you need to follow the 100% to cover the project scope but you need to recognise when you’re making the WBS complex or too simple.
A WBS lets you estimate the projects’ labour and duration for the project which helps with project budgeting and risk management. Don’t stop there, ensure you reasonably assign each work package and get feedback from your team.
You undoubtedly know about the scope screep trap. We’ve all been burned before. That’s why it’s important to establish change control and ‘monitoring SOPs’ to accommodate any customer-driven or team-driven changes.
Now that we know how to create a WBS for construction projects, let look at how to make the best use of them:
The WBS “8-80” rule says you no task says that no chunks of work can take less than 8 hours and longer than 80 hours to complete. This means tasks are between one 8 hour working day and two full working weeks for two operatives.
Everyone involved the project is responsible for the WBS creation and execution. It must be usable and comprehensive for all stakeholders. The project manager will drive the process and manage all the moving pieces.
A well-made WBS should successfully turn 100% of a complicated project scope into manageable deliverables and work packages.
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