How to break down a project. Examples of WBS

break down a project

To ensure the success of a project, it is necessary that the project Manager knows how to break down the project and, consequently, structure a WBS.

WBS is the abbreviation of Work Breakdown Structure, which, in other words, means a division of the labor required to complete a project.

The WBS is widely used by professional project managers to represent the scope of the project and the results in a hierarchical manner.

Generally, creating a work breakdown structure is one of the first steps in project planning.

For project managers at the beginning of their careers, sometimes the WBS can be confusing and difficult to manage, but it is good that they quickly become familiar with it, because it is the key to success, especially in the case of complex projects.

The Work Breakdown Structure, in fact, is used to make complex projects more manageable. In essence, the WBS is designed to help divide a project into manageable blocks that can be effectively assessed and controlled.

How to break down a project: why do you use a WBS?

Obviously, a simple list of the activities and the people who will follow the project is not enough to clearly divide the project into smaller pieces.

Therefore, the use of a work breakdown structure provides a clear view of the project’s scope of work.

In a work program, the activities are grouped under certain levels of decomposition.

For example, in a construction project program, the electrical wiring activities are grouped in the level dedicated to the electrical system, while the piping activities are grouped in the level dedicated to mechanical works.

Therefore, the WBS allows to improve the quality of planning, traceability, and reporting and this is why it is used.

It should be kept in mind though, that the WBS describes the final results and the activity groups, not the activities in detail.

In short, some widely used reasons for creating a WBS include:

  • Help with an accurate project organization
  • Help to assign responsibilities
  • Show project control points and milestones
  • Allow a more accurate estimate of costs, risks, and time
  • Help explain the scope of the project to stakeholders

How to break down a project correctly

To start, the project manager and the experts determine the main final results for the project.

Once determined, it is possible to begin to break down these results into smaller and smaller work blocks.

But how small? This depends on the type of project and the management style, but some sort of rule should be established in order to determine the size and scope of the smallest work blocks.

For example, the two-week rule could be chosen, in which no piece / activity is smaller than two weeks of work required for completion.

Or, another method is the 8/80 rule, where no block should take less than 8 hours or more than 80 hours to complete.

Determining these rules for block sizes can take some practice, but these make WBS definitely easier to use and structure.

Regarding the format chosen for the WBS design, some project managers prefer to create tables or lists, but most use graphics to visualize the components of the project, such as a hierarchical tree structure or a diagram.

How to simplify a project: some examples

The WBS diagram starts with a single box or another graphic element, usually positioned at the top, which represents the entire project.

The project is then divided into main components with related activities or items listed below them.

In general, the superior components are the final results, while the lower level elements are the activities that lead to creating the final results.

Here are some simple examples of WBS:

Developing a computer:

Suppose your organization intends to start developing a computer.

To speed up the work, you can assign specific teams to different aspects of computer construction, as shown in the diagram below.

break down a project_chart 1

In this way, a team could work on the configuration of the frame, while another team will be dedicated to protecting the components.

Developing a computer game:

Let us now think, for example, that your organization wants to manage a project dedicated to a software, specifically the creation of a computer game.

To be the first to launch the game in the market, it is necessary to assign specific aspects of the game to different teams, as shown in the diagram below.

break down a project_chart 2

Construction project:

The convenient format of a Work Breakdown Structure allows you to use it for any type of project and, therefore, it is also useful in the case of a construction project.

This example of a work breakdown structure shows that all the elements are listed in the various levels of the WBS.

The lower levels of the structure show the results of the project. Tasks and activities will be grouped under these lower levels.

Level 1 is the overall project. Level 2 represents the main phases of the project. Level 3 shows the main final results, while level 4 represents the minor results.

break down a project_chart 3

The construction of an effective project work sharing structure can, in the long term, determine the success of the project.

The WBS provides the basis for project planning, cost estimation, resource planning and allocation, not to mention risk management.

The WBS simply provides a visual presentation by graphically organizing the project results. This structure shows everything that is needed in order to complete the project on a single graph.

In the ideal case, the high-level final results included in the WBS should correspond, word by word, to the goals and results written in the scope description of the project.

As a result, the WBS is one of the first documents created in the project management life cycle. This will be created even before creating the project plan.

This means that the WBS is often the first product in a project and defines the hierarchy of final results.

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