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Project fails because of ineffective Work Breakdown Structure.

Project fails because of ineffective Work Breakdown Structure.  

We have heard repeatedly the popular saying in Project Management “how do you eat a big elephant?” The answer, “one piece at a time”. This is the basic principle of applying what is called Work Breakdown Structure or commonly known as WBS. The Project Management Body of Knowledge or PMBook defines the work breakdown structure as a "deliverable oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team." The work breakdown structure visually defines the scope into manageable chunks that a project team can understand, as each level of the work breakdown structure provides further definition and detail. So, using this principle if I am assigned a project, all I need to do is break it down into pieces until it is manageable? When is this “manageable level” attained? Level 1, 2, 3 and so on? When do we stop? Also, the word “Structure” should imply that it must be divided in an organized and consistent manner!

So Not quite easy, right? Remember on the pre-requisite video Everyday Project Management Part I, where attaining success in any tasks is by being thorough with planning and preparation prior to execution of any task? Same thing applies here. If you fail at this stage to correctly use the WBS principle, then you will likely find difficulty in executing the tasks and reporting project status. Also, managing interface would eventually be an uphill battle.

Say you are responsible for a Design-Build Commercial Complex Development Project where your company acts as the General Contractor. As a project manager you will oversea the Detailed Design, Procurement, Construction and commissioning stages of the overall project. Remember, as the PM it is your duty that you are heavily involved in the creation of your project WBS as much as possible.

So what criteria is best suited as Level 1 of your WBS? If you said Time or time driven, then you are in the right track! The category with this characteristic is the different stages such as detailed engineering, procurement, construction and commissioning. After all, they are sequential to each other where one needs to complete or part of it before the other can start. It will be a different case though if the project has multiple locations where location 1 must complete a large portion of the scope before the other starts. Then the Level 1 category would be locations and not stages.

Now let’s jump directly to Construction and build the Level 2 WBS from there. Draw the boundary lines on your Plot Plan or try to visualize it if you do not have one yet. Make sure that grouping is lumped together, not spread-out and more importantly you have a “strategic purpose” in choosing your boundary lines. This shall mean size can vary area-wise or scope-wise. It must be more than one but as much as possible keep it below 10 areas.

At this juncture the higher the level the better.

So, we have sub-projects where you can assign sort of deputy project managers. Note, it does not mean per person per each package. A person may have multiple packages depending on size and complexity.

So how big are these areas? Can these areas be further broken down into sub-areas? Will it have substantial amount of work where a Project Engineer type of supervision can manage? If so, then breakdown your Areas into sub areas and call it level 3.

Same as with the Level 2 Areas define the boundary lines with “strategic purpose”.

At this stage you might have already reach this “sweet spot” called “manageable level”. This is the level where a multi-discipline or multi process level should follow. It shall also be the last level where you expect the details on reporting project status and issues. Though your detailed project schedule can go beyond this level, you as a PM are not expected to go down to that level of details.

So what are the benefits of doing this approach?

1. It eliminates Inter-discipline interfaces - where your Mini PMs shall be the champion of the package or packages assigned to him. The mini PM will be obligated to study the whole scope, drawings, specification, and from all disciplines. This assures all potential issues are raise so he can progress work on his area.

2) Better accountability – you can just give the mini PM a start date and a completion date plus 3 to 5 intermediate milestones and tell him he is responsible in creating a plan, making sure all pre requisites are ready, he is the absolute master of the portion of the work.

3) Competition - creates an environment of competition amongst your mini-PM. Its been proven time and time again, healthy competition promotes productivity.

4) Visibility - you can pin point easily which area is problematic so the team can extend assistance to where it is needed the most.

5) You will be able to apply unconventional techniques in Project Controls such as 100-100 Rule and Rules of Exception. but, what are these?

I will discuss these techniques in the succeeding video Everyday Project Management Part III. I will also discuss how the WBS for other stages like engineering, procurement and others will map against Construction. Please subscribe to our channel and please leave a like or comment below.

BTW, let’s be clear on one thing. The main application of the WBS principle is Project Execution, not as a Cost Center Breakdown or Breakdown for packages in Estimating. The common mistake we have encountered from Project Organization is adapt the Cost Breakdown or Estimating Breakdown and call it WBS which most time not a good fit to apply in Project Planning and Execution! Be very careful!

Remember, the 2 key principles are…. one, it is a must that you do at least 2 consecutive levels of the WBS as Area-Based. Two, never use “Discipline based or process based” prior to not having satisfied number one. Unless your project is really small like building a 2 bedroom house or similar.

Think about it for a second. The moment you pre-maturely introduce discipline or process based WBS, you immediately lost the opportunity to capitalize the benefits of having smaller projects with mini PMs. You created silos where discipline leads will likely not talk amongst each other and you gave the them an excuse to blame the other discipline on the delays they may incur. Accountability and visibility, GONE. You may also need interface engineers, project coordinators, and other support resources where it could easily be avoided through AREA BASED WBS.

Let’s hear from you guys to listen to your struggles pertaining to WBS or anything that you may wish I could elaborate more on the succeeding articles . Please visit

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