Project Work Breakdown Structure

16 June, 2014

It comes as something of a surprise to learn that the Project Scope Management technique of the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) originated in the U.S. Department of Defence - the strategy embodied in the WBS being that of the British “divide and rule”. Most projects are just too large for any individual to grasp in one go, so breaking the work down into constituent components makes a lot of sense. The important thing to grasp about the WBS is that its purpose is to describe the project’s scope, not its schedule. It will indicate WHAT needs to be done, not HOW or WHEN.

As an example, suppose that you are a professional photographer, specializing in wild birds. A magazine has approached you with an assignment to photograph the lesser-spotted cormorant, whose nesting sites are found on a small island off the Irish coast. An attractive fee has been offered, but should you accept the assignment? In other words, how much will you have to spend to get the pictures?

The WBS approach is a big help here - it can be used as a basis for estimating costs. In this example, you will have to bring your camera gear to the town nearest the island; hire a boat to get to the island; climb up the cliffs to reach the birds’ nests; take the photographs and return home.

This means that our first attempt at breaking down the Cormorant Project will look like:

1. Cormorant Project

    1.1. Transport

            1.1.1. Land
            1.1.2. Sea
            1.1.3.  Climbing

    1.2.  Photography

Assuming that you already have the camera equipment (you are a professional photographer after all) and assuming you are also an experienced climber as well (not unreasonable if you specialize in birds) and have all the climbing gear, it looks like land and sea transport are going to be your only expenses. However, do not forget your own needs. It might take several days to get all the required pictures, so you will need food. You could well require accommodation unless you want to spend the nights camped on the island. So you have a choice to make: book into a local Bed & Breakfast and travel to the island every day. Or travel to the island, pitch your tent and remain there until the job is done. Either way, food and accommodation need to be included in the job. So now the WBS expands to:

1. Cormorant Project

    1.1. Transport

            1.1.1. Land
            1.1.2. Sea
            1.1.3.  Climbing

    1.2.  Photography

    1.3. Subsistence

           1.3.1. Food
           1.3.2. Accommodation

If you decide to camp on the island and own your own camping equipment, food and land/sea transport look like being your only expenses. However, it would be rash to base your costs only on the WBS. We would need to do some scheduling work first and then risk analysis. How long will it take to get all the photographs needed? Being an experienced photographer, you will be able to estimate this. However, what about weather issues? Will you be able to get to the island if the seas are rough? How much more dangerous will climbing cliffs be if it is raining (a reasonable assumption in Ireland)? Should you bring an assistant with you in case of accident? Speaking of accident, how will you contact the boat to bring you back when the job is done (or when you slip and break your legs in a fall)? Will you need a satellite phone or will there be mobile coverage?

Suddenly, this line of thinking has added another aspect to the project’s scope – safety:

1. Cormorant Project

    1.1. Transport

            1.1.1. Land
            1.1.2. Sea
            1.1.3.  Climbing

    1.2.  Photography

    1.3. Subsistence

           1.3.1. Food
           1.3.2. Accommodation

    1.4. Safety

           1.4.1. Assistant
           1.4.2. Satellite Phone

At this stage, we have broken down the project into what are called Work Packages. To go down further involves delving into the specifics of implementation and we start asking HOW questions instead of WHAT. For instance, the Work Package “Land Transport” could be loading the van with camera and camping gear and driving to the coast. It could be storing everything in backpacks and using public transport. It could involve hiring a van for the assignment. The important thing, from a WBS perspective, is that we need to get from A to B and back again. That is the outcome we are concerned with.

Another aspect of the WBS to consider is the 100% rule. The child nodes need to represent everything under the parent node’s heading. In this example, you may require some sort of medical treatment on your trip – you might be diabetic for instance. This would have to be included under “Subsistence”. This sort of thinking: “Have I everything covered under this heading?” helps to get a complete picture of the scope.

Equally important is the avoidance of overlap. You will know if your WBS is defective if you find the same node appearing twice. In this example, you might have to buy a special piece of scaffolding to mount a camera on the cliff-face, so that you can take long exposure shots. Would this be placed under “Photography” or “Transport Climbing”? If you focus on outcomes, the “Transport Climbing” node contains everything needed to get to the nesting sites; the “Photography” contains everything needed to take the pictures. So the outcome the scaffolding equipment supports is the photography.

Velopi’s project management training courses cover project scope management. If this area is intriguing for you, you might consider one of our project management certification courses that are held in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

 

 

 

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