You are on page 1of 7

Building High Quality Work Breakdown Structures using the Practice Standard for Work

Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition


Eric Norman PMP, ChoicePoint, Inc., Shelly Brotherton PMP, Wells Fargo Financial, Inc., Robert Fried
PMP, CA, Inc., George Ksander PMP, Genentech, Inc.,

Introduction
The intent of this paper is to acquaint the reader with the contents of the Practice Standard for Work Breakdown
Structures-Second Edition, explore a few of its key concepts in detail, and to motivate the reader to consult the
Practice Standard regularly as a reference.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) recognized the unique importance of the Work Breakdown Structure
(WBS) when it published, in 2001, a Practice Standard devoted exclusively to the WBS. This document was the first
practice standard. It focused on providing guidelines on the mechanics (e.g., nuts and bolts, basics,
fundamentals, step-by-step usage guide, how it operates, how to do it) for the WBS (PMI, 2001, p. 29). A Practice
Standard is intended to be more prescriptive than the PMBOK Guide (PMI, 2001, p. 30). Increasing
sophistication in the use of the WBS has stimulated production of an updated and revised edition Practice
Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition.
The Practice Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition addresses many of the recommendations
received since the first publication, including the need for more detail, a broader overall perspective, more and
varied examples, checklists, and reference material, while ensuring that this material accurately reflects the
application of standard practice in the industry. Throughout the standard, the reader will find more guidance about
the characteristics that make up a high-quality WBS, as well as a discussion about the use of the WBS in real-life
practical experience. The Practice Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition is consistent with A
Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) Third Edition.
The primary objectives of the Practice Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition are 1) to provide
a common ground for understanding the concepts and benefits of the WBS, and 2) to present a standard application
of the WBS as a project management tool. The intent is to encourage consistency in applying this tool and, as a
result, to improve project planning and control.

The WBS Concept


A WBS, as defined in the PMBOK Guide is A deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be
executed by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables. It organizes
and defines the total scope of the project. Each descending level represents an increasingly detailed definition of the
project work. The WBS is decomposed into work packages. The deliverable orientation of the hierarchy includes
both internal and external deliverables. (PMI, 2004, p. 212)
The WBS provides a clear statement of the objectives and deliverables of the work to be performed.
It represents a clear description of the projects deliverables and scopethe what of the project. It is not a
description of a process or schedule that defines how or when the deliverables will be produced, but rather is
specifically limited to describing and detailing the projects outcomes or scope. The WBS is a foundational element,
and as such is a critical input to other project management processes and deliverables such as activity definitions,
project network diagrams, project and program schedules, performance reports, risk analysis and response, control
tools or project organization.

Defining the WBS


The upper levels of the WBS typically reflect the major deliverable work areas of the project, decomposed into
logical groupings of work. The content of the upper levels can vary, depending on the type of project and industry
involved. The lower WBS elements provide appropriate focus for support of project management processes such as
schedule development, cost estimating, resource allocation, and risk assessment. The lowest-level WBS components
2006, Norman, Brotherton, Fried, Ksander
1
Originally published as apart of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Seattle Washington

are called work packages and contain the work to be performed and tracked. These can be later used as input to the
scheduling process to support tasks and milestones which can be cost estimated, monitored, and controlled.
A central attribute of the WBS is that it is deliverable orientated (Berg and Colenso, 2000). The PMBOK Guide
defines a deliverable as: Any unique and verifiable product, result, or capability to perform a service that must be
produced to complete a process, phase or project. (PMI, 2004, p. 108) In this context, oriented means aligned or
positioned with respect to deliverables, i.e., focused on deliverables.
A second key attribute of the WBS is that it is a hierarchical decomposition of the work (PMI, 2004p. 127)
Decomposition is a planning technique that subdivides the project scope and project deliverables into smaller, more
manageable components, until the project work associated with accomplishing the project scope and deliverables is
defined in sufficient detail to support executing, monitoring, and controlling the work (PMI, 2004, p. 373). This
decomposition (or subdivision) clearly and comprehensively defines the scope of the project in terms of individual
sub-deliverables that the project participants can easily understand. The specific number of levels should be
appropriate for effectively managing the project in question.
The 100% Rule (Haugan, 2002, p 17) is one of the most important principles guiding the development,
decomposition and evaluation of the WBS. This rule states that the WBS includes 100% of the work defined by the
project scope and captures ALL deliverablesinternal, external and interimin terms of work to be completed,
including project management. The rule applies at all levels within the hierarchy: the sum of the work at the child
level must equal 100% of the work represented by the parentand the WBS should not include any work that
falls outside the actual scope of the project; that is, it cannot include more than 100% of the work.
The WBS can be represented in a variety of ways including graphical, textual or tabular views. The form of
representation should be chosen based on the needs of the specific project. Exhibits 1 through 3 below illustrate the
same WBS represented in Outline View format, Organization Chart format and in the Tree or Centralized Tree
Structure:
1.0

New Product Release


1.1 New Product Inventory
1.2 Product Documentation
1.3 Product Training Materials
1.4 Project Management
Exhibit 1 Outline View.

Exhibit 2 Tree Structure, or Organizational Chart Structure.

2006, Norman, Brotherton, Fried, Ksander


2
Originally published as apart of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Seattle Washington

Exhibit 3 Centralized Tree Structure.

The Importance of the WBS


Experienced project managers know that there are many things that can go wrong in projects regardless of how
successful project managers are in the planning and execution of their work. Project failures, however, can often be
traced to a poorly developed or nonexistent WBS. A poorly constructed WBS can result in adverse project outcomes
such as ongoing project extensions, unclear work assignments, goals, objectives, or deliverables, scope creep or
unmanageable, frequently changing scope, budget overrun, missed deadlines, unusable new products or features, or
failure to deliver some elements of project scope. The Practice Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond
Edition provides a checklist as a guide for identifying and repairing WBS defects (section 4.5).
The WBS plays an integral role in other project management initiating, planning, executing, and monitoring and
controlling processes as described in the PMBOK GuideThird Edition. Typical examples of the contribution of
the WBS to other processes are described in the Practice Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition.
There are many project management tools that use the WBS or its components as input (PMI, 2004, Chapter 5,
Section 5.3). For example, the WBS utilizes the Project Charter as its starting point. The high-level elements in the
WBS should match, word-for-word, the nouns used to describe the outcomes of the project in the Scope Statement.
In addition, the Resource Breakdown Structure (RBS) describes the projects resource organization and can be used
in conjunction with the WBS to define work package assignments. The WBS Dictionary defines, details, and
clarifies the various elements of the WBS. The Network Diagram is a sequential arrangement of the work defined by
the WBS and the elements of the WBS are starting points for defining the activities included in the Project Schedule.
Scope management is integral to other PMI standards and therefore these explicitly or implicitly rely on the WBS.
Standards that take advantage of the WBS either use the WBS as an input (e.g., PMIs Practice Standard for Earned
Value Management (EVM) and the upcoming Practice Standard for Scheduling) or incorporate the WBS as the
preferred tool to develop the scope definition (e.g., the PMBOK GuideThird Edition, OPM3).

2006, Norman, Brotherton, Fried, Ksander


3
Originally published as apart of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Seattle Washington

Defining WBS Quality


The PMBOK Guide considers quality to involve the the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfills
requirements (PMI, 2004, p. 195). This includes the ideas of conformance to requirements and fitness for use, that
is, the ability to satisfy the purpose for which the itemin this case a WBSwas intended. A high quality WBS
is one that has been created so that it satisfies the purpose for which it was created.
There are two basic principles that govern the quality of a WBS.

WBS Quality Principle 1


A quality WBS is a WBS constructed in such a way that it satisfies all of the requirements for its use in a project.
There are two sub-principles that pertain to satisfying requirements for a WBS. These describe core characteristics
and use-related characteristics.

WBS Quality Sub-Principle 1 Core Characteristics:


There are a set of Core Characteristics that must be present in every WBS, as these characteristics enable the WBS
to satisfy project needs that are present in every project. A WBS either exhibits the Core Characteristics or it does
not, and, as such, these characteristics represent the minimum set of specific attributes a WBS must contain. When
evaluating or developing a WBS, the absence or presence of these core characteristics will dictate whether or not it
is a Quality WBS. Selected examples from the full list of Core Characteristics contained in the Practice Standard
for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition are:

Is a deliverable-oriented grouping of project elements.


Defines the scope of the project.
Contains 100% of the work defined by the scope.
Provides a graphical, textual or tabular breakdown of the project scope.
Arranges all major and minor deliverables in a hierarchical structure.

WBS Quality Sub-Principle 2 Use-related Characteristics:


There is an additional set of Use-related Characteristics that may vary from one WBS to another. These
characteristics enable the WBS to be used for purposes that are unique to a specific project, industry or environment,
or are applied in a particular way to individual projects.
The quality of a WBS depends on how well the specific content of the WBS and the type of WBS elements included
meet all the needs for which the WBS has been developed. The more project needs that are met by the WBS, the
higher its quality. Selected examples of Use-related Characteristics include:

Achieves a sufficient level of decomposition: A WBS is broken down to a level of detail sufficient for
managing the work. The appropriate level of detail to enable effective management can differ from
organization to organization or project to project.
Provides sufficient detail for communicating all work: The degree of WBS detail necessary for
conceptualization of project detail can vary.
Is appropriate for tracking, as required by the specific project or organization.
Is appropriate for control activities: A WBS provides a good balance between complexity, risk, and the
project managers need for control.
Can contain specific kinds of WBS elements, as needed for each project.
Enables assignment of accountability at the appropriate level: Some projects can require assignment of
accountability at a detailed level, while others might be satisfied with accountability at a summary rollup
level.
Has a succinct, clear, and logically organized structure to meet project management and oversight
requirements: The logic of the hierarchical decomposition of a project can vary in response to a variety of
2006, Norman, Brotherton, Fried, Ksander
4
Originally published as apart of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Seattle Washington

project and organizational factors.

WBS Quality Principle 2


WBS quality characteristics apply at all levels of scope definition.
There is no conceptual difference between a project WBS, a program WBS, and a portfolio WBS. A high-quality
WBS developed at any of these levels possesses precisely the same characteristics and attributes as a high-quality
WBS developed at the individual project level. These differ only in the breadth of the content and scope. The WBS
quality principles that apply to a project WBS also apply to a program or portfolio WBS.
The Practice Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition provides a checklist for assessing WBS
quality (PMI, 2006, Sec. 4.5)

Considerations While Creating a WBS


The WBS is created in the Create WBS planning process. (PMI, 2004, sec. 5.3) There are many ways to create a
WBS. It can be developed entirely as a new document, can reuse components from existing WBSs, can be based on
a template, or can follow pre-defined WBS standards. When reusing existing components, WBS elements can be
drawn from similar projects or from standard project templates that the organization has determined support
accepted good practices.
A number of project management tools can be used to assist with the development of a WBS. These tools include
outlines and organization charts, fishbone and brainstorming techniques. There are many WBS templates available,
and corporate standards can be referenced or copied for quick-starting WBS development. The Practice Standard
for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition contains many examples that may be used as starting point. There
are many benefits to using tools to develop a WBS. For example, tools often promote consistency and repeatability
in the development of a WBS, especially enterprise productivity tools. WBS tools can also promote and enforce the
principles of the WBS standard and can significantly reduce the development effort, simplify the WBS process, and
even promote reusable WBS products.
The WBS evolves through an iterative consideration of the projects purpose and objectives (both business and
technical), functional and performance design criteria, project scope, technical performance requirements, and other
technical attributes. A high-level WBS can often be developed early in the conceptual stage of the project. Once the
project is defined and specifications are prepared, a more detailed WBS can then be developed. It should be
customized to the specific needs and requirements of the project. All non-required work and deliverables should be
listed and removed so the WBS represents only the projects scope. The end result is a WBS that represents the
complete list of deliverables for the project. A number of authors have provided useful guidance on preparing a
WBS (Haugan, 2002; Pritchard, 1998; Uyttewaal, 2003).
Some of the more popular methods employed to create a WBS include a top-down approach, a bottom-up approach,
the use of organization-specific WBS guidelines or standards, and the use of WBS templates. Each of these has
advantages and disadvantages, which are described in the Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures
Second Edition. The choice of appropriate method should be based on the specific project objectives, requirements,
assumptions, and constraints.
The Practice Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition offers guidance (sec 5.3) for developing a
WBS. This includes attention to the basic tenets of WBS construction, for example, explicit inclusion of all
deliverables, including interim and intangible deliverables, the 100% rule, use of an appropriate decomposition
logic, appropriate level of detail, and use of an iterative WBS process. The guidance also includes consideration of
specific questions within the Project Management Knowledge Areas.
Effective application of use-related characteristics relies on experience and judgment by the project management
team. Important areas of WBS development that require judgment include level of detail, types of WBS elements to
include, and logic of decomposition.

2006, Norman, Brotherton, Fried, Ksander


5
Originally published as apart of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Seattle Washington

The level of detail in a WBS is a function of the size of the project, and reflects a balance between complexity, risk,
and the project managers need for control. The level of detail can also vary during the evolution of a project. Shortduration projects lend themselves to decomposition to a high degree of detail at the outset, while projects of longer
duration and higher complexity can preclude decomposition of all deliverables until more is known about the
project. This is especially true when employing rolling wave planning.
Not every WBS needs to include all types of work. Rather, the kinds of work included in a WBS should be dictated
by the scope and nature of the project for which the WBS is being developed. Some projects require certain types of
WBS elements, e.g., assembly or integration, while others do not. All projects require a project management WBS
element at level 2 in order to ensure that the work of planning, tracking, and reporting is adequately captured and
managed. (Practice Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition provides an example of a project
management WBS.) A particular organization, however, might require use of a standardized WBS template that
does not include certain kinds of project management WBS elementsfor example, administration, documentation,
or reporting elementsbecause the need for these is adequately addressed by other business processes established
by that organization.
The way that the project manager decomposes the project (i.e., the logic used for decomposing the work) can vary
depending on the needs and requirements of the performing organization and how the WBS will be used. Where
new product development proceeds in sequential stage-like phases with later work contingent on the outcome of
earlier work, it would make sense to organize the WBS in terms of the product development life cycle, rather than in
terms of physical components of the product.
The ability of a WBS to meet the needs of a project is also directly related to the level of project management
competency available within the project management team. An experienced project management team will be able
to identify a greater range of stated and implied project needs that the WBS can address. A more experienced project
management team will ensure the WBS is employed in a greater variety of project roles, and will use the WBS in
more efficient and sophisticated ways than will a novice or inexperienced project management team.

Evolution of the Practice Standard


The publication of revised editions of the PMBOK Guide and The Practice Standard for Work Breakdown
Structures recognizes the growth and increased sophistication of project management thought and practice in
general, and of the WBS in particular. In some cases this evolution reflects revised thinking and reformulation of
earlier concepts, and in other cases it represents progressive elaboration and formalization of concepts that were
previously only implicit. These represent current and emerging practice and are now explicit in this practice
standard.
An example of revised thinking is the concept of the WBS as Deliverable-oriented which has changed from a
Task-oriented family tree of activities (PMI,1987), to deliverable-oriented decomposition of the work to be
executed (PMI, 2004). The evolution from a task-orientation to a deliverable orientation reflects the realization that
decomposition of project deliverables, expressed as nouns, is necessary for complete scope definition and control,
and that the lowest level of the WBS may be connected to activities and work packages defined in terms of actions,
expressed as verbs (Berg and Colenso, 2000, p 69; PMI, 2001, p. 3; Colenso, 2003.)
An example of increasing formalization of implied concepts is the explicit statement in the WBS Practice Standard Second Edition of the WBS Quality Principle #1 which states that a WBS is characterized by a set of Core
Characteristics required for all projects, and a set Use-related Characteristics that may vary from one WBS to
another because they enable the WBS to be used for purposes that are unique to a specific project, industry or
environment, or are applied in a particular way to individual projects. (PMI, 2006, sec 4.2). These concepts had
been implicit in descriptions of the WBS from the earliest days (e.g., Office of the Secretary of Defense. DoD and
NASA Guide PERT COST Systems Design, June 1962, pp.27, 33) but only became explicit in the latest edition of
the The Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures.

2006, Norman, Brotherton, Fried, Ksander


6
Originally published as apart of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Seattle Washington

Usage Trends
In a survey conducted by the Practice Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition team, 87% of
respondents said that they use the WBS as a planning tool for project management activities at least half of the time
and over 60% used it more often. Their main objectives were to use the WBS to support activity definition, resource
planning, scope planning and definition, cost estimating, and risk planning. 91% of the respondents stated they were
either satisfied or very satisfied with the ability of the WBS to meet these objectives. These results illustrate the
broad acceptance and use of the WBS in project management practice today.
The concept of the WBS has evolved to meet the evolving requirements of the project management profession. This
is an evolution which has elaborated the core concept of the WBS: a tool to enable the definition, development,
communication and execution of project scope. The practice standard will also continue to evolve in parallel with
generally accepted good project management practice.

References
Berg, C. & Colenso, K. (2000, April), Work Breakdown Structure Practice Standard Project WBS vs.
Activities, PMI Network,. p. 69.
Colenso, K. (2003, April). Toward a common vocabulary. PMI Today, 3
Haugan, Gregory T. 2002, Effective Work Breakdown Structures, Management Concepts: Vienna, VA.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (1962, June). DOD and NASA Guide. PERT Cost Systems
Design. Washington DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Pritchard, Carl. 1998. How to Build a Work Breakdown Structure. The Cornerstone of Project
Management. Arlington, Virginia: ESI International.
Project Management Institute Standards Committee. 1987. The Project Management Body of Knowledge
(PMBOK). Darby PA: Project Management Institute.1987.
Project Management Institute. 2001. Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures. Newton Square,
PA: Project Management Institute.
Project Management Institute. 2006. Practice Standard for Work Breakdown StructuresSecond Edition.
Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Project Management Institute. 2004. Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) - Third
Edition.. Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute Inc.
Project Management Institute. (2004). Practice Standard for Earned Value Management (EVM). Newtown
Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Project Management Institute. (2003). Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3):
Knowledge Foundation. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Project Management Institute. (in development). The Practice Standard for Scheduling. Newtown Square,
PA: Project Management Institute.
Uyttewaal, Eric. (2003). Dynamic Scheduling with Microsoft Project 2002. International Institute for
Learning. Boca Raton: J. Ross Publishing Co.

2006, Norman, Brotherton, Fried, Ksander


7
Originally published as apart of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Seattle Washington