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Project WBS: Different Types, Uses and Tools

Updated on November 9, 2012
A Sample Complex Project
A Sample Complex Project | Source

What is a WBS in Project Management?

From a practitioner's point of view, a project work breakdown structure or Project WBS has several types and uses as well as tools to get the job done.

What a Project WBS is Not

With 32 acronyms for WBS in TheFreeDictionary, WBS can stand for non-project management related concepts, business organizations, schools or even locations.

Furthermore, a work breakdown structure can include an Operations Management WBS. Of course, the Project Management Institute specifically differentiates project management from operations management. In this regard, Salvendy and Golany broadly describe an Operations Management WBS and associate it with division of labor in the Handbook of Industrial Engineering: Technology and Operations Management, 3rd edition as follows: "Division of labor is a management approach based on the breaking up of a process into a series of small tasks so that each task can be assigned to a different worker."

For the simple reason that operations oftentimes include projects, Salvendy and Golany have also expounded on the Project WBS along with the Operations Management WBS.

Project WBS Definitions

Robert Max Wideman, the first edition creator of the Project Management Institute's PMBOK Guide, offers the best definitions for Project WBS.

Depending on which author, organization, or book, Wideman gives several views on how to define a project management work breakdown structure for different intents and purposes.

The first general definition for a Project WBS states that it is a tree structure of work items, activities, or tasks that are organized to represent the work to be done to complete a project considering factors such as time, and human and financial resources.

The second general definition of a Project WBS asserts that it is a tree structure of products or services that are needed for monitoring and managing a project to completion.

The third general definition of a Project WBS is that it is a way, tool or technique that breakdowns a project into small parts in a hierarchy of progressive detail.

With the raging debate among project managers from different professional organizations that a product breakdown structure (PBS) is different from a work breakdown structure (WBS) in that the PBS represents products or deliverables and that the WBS represents work, we will choose the third general definition.

The main reason for such preference is that practically speaking, a project WBS can contain both products/deliverables and work depending on the organization that is handling projects.

Final Definition: Project Management Work Breakdown Structure

A Project WBS is an analytical approach, technique, way or tool that breakdowns a project into progressive levels of detail to help control and better manage the people (labor and intellectual capital), materials (consummables, physical resources, goods, products, equipment), and process (activities, techniques, systems, approaches, tasks, technology) inputs that are necessary to complete a project on time, within expected costs, and within expected quality, specifications and/or results.

What is a WBS: Different Types and Uses

A Project WBS, depending on the purpose, has four types:

  • Products/Services Oriented
  • Results Oriented
  • Work/Task/Activity Oriented
  • Mixed Products/Services, Results and Work/Task/Activity Oriented

Products/Services Oriented Project WBS Examples

Construction projects typically involve a products oriented Project WBS. The integration of various products make up the entire project.

For instance, a gated community project will involve the following products: road networks, drainage systems, electrical systems, water and gas utility systems, club house, amusement amenities (parks, playgrounds, tennis courts, basketball courts), closed perimeter walls, community fences, different house types and lot sizes, and several choices of land parcel cuts.

Web development projects are good examples of service oriented Project WBS types where intellectual capital are often used. Web development projects require the integration of various services from different service providers like: design and graphics service providers, hosting service providers, web development service providers, content service providers (images, written content, audio, video), technology service providers (content management systems, plug-ins, widgets), SEO service providers, and e-commerce service providers.

Government projects typically require both products and services wherein a big project will consist of smaller projects that are bid out and subcontracted to various individuals and private organizations that are in the business of project management. The US Department of Energy Berkeley Lab provides a good example of this hybrid products and services Project WBS, here.

In the above link, the official government document shows a Project WBS on page 3 that consists of products (equipments and furniture) and services (intellectual capital in the form of technical designs, and project management services like project costing, monitoring and quality assurance).

Results Oriented Project WBS Examples

Government concession (turnkey) projects and performance-based contracts essentially have results oriented types of Project WBS.

Results oriented projects consist of products and/or services that are tied to specific outcomes for the project to pay for itself and minimize risks on the part of the project owner. This is achieved through contractor financing, project execution and close out, and day-to-day operations. Another way is by addressing risk factors through the contract to ensure that for the contractor to financially benefit from the exceptional performance of the project during the operations stage, the project has to deliver certain predefined results like sufficient revenue streams.

For instance, the Suez Canal is a concessional type of project where the expected result is the Suez Canal where ships can pass through the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea. The Suez Canal connects Europe and Asia enabling ships to travel a shorter route without passing through Africa.

In a concessional project, the contractor tries to recover the project cost and makes a profit from the revenue streams in operating the project for a certain period of time. Concessional Project WBS are mainly created and evaluated based on the profitable results from the point of view of the project contractor and based on the economic development benefits from the perspective of the government project owner.

In concessional projects, it's typical to have two Project WBS; one for the use of the contractor and another for the use of the government project owner.

Results oriented Project WBS from the project contractor's point of view can typically show financial milestones in the execution and operation of the government project. This can be in the form of a financial graph or spreadsheet for justification with financial institutions such as commercial lending or investment banks like the BNP Paribas or development banks like the World Bank or Asian Development Bank. For deeper insights into a concessional Project WBS, see the verb-based, results oriented concessional Project WBS like Build-Operate-Transfer and Design-Build-Operate here.

Other types of government projects with Results Oriented Project WBS include information technology projects that aim to save on or avoid costs. In these types of government projects, the executive level managers look at the Project WBS from a results orientation usually from a financial perspective with expected outcomes such as Returns on Investment that are further broken down into cost savings per department, work package, or even cost/profit center units. Meanwhile, middle managers and supervisors create or detail a Products/Services Oriented Project WBS or a Work/Task/Activity Oriented Project WBS to implement the Results Oriented Project WBS of executives.

R&D and Marketing projects also employ results oriented Project WBS where expected results include increased market share and revenue growth for newly developed products. Some marketing projects include data mining projects and branding projects.

For a sample results oriented branding Project WBS, checkout Robertson's Brand Drivers diagram on page 174, here. In the study made by researchers from the University of Pretoria in South Africa, they note the 8 skills (work packages) that are needed to develop and manage brands with expected results such as getting a portion of 60% of sales through electronic means.

Work/Task/Activity Oriented Project WBS

The Work/Task/Activity Oriented Project WBS usually represents the smallest project unit from a bigger project. It could be an end-of-the-tree structure Project WBS, it could still be further broken down into smaller work packages, or it could represent a small, very simple project like a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) solar panel or windmill kit.

A Scrum Task Board is a good example of this type of Project WBS. In a Scrum board, the To-Do List is represented by stories (work packages) that go through a workflow process. In this type of project management approach, the work packages are represented through sticky notes that a team works on for faster more flexible end results. If you want a quick but good example, then click on this free: Scrum Task Board online tool.

Mixed Products/Services, Results and Work/Task/Activity Oriented Project WBS

The conventional project is big, complex and requires multiple disciplines. In a well organized project office, this big project is managed by a program manager. The program manager creates a Results Oriented or Product Oriented Project WBS for bid tenders on the smaller components of the bigger project. Down the line, the contractors and/or subcontractors use a Product Oriented Project WBS, Results Oriented Project WBS, or a Task Oriented Project WBS.

A dam or bridge project will require several contractors to do each component of the Project WBS from the financial to the structural or from the technical to the social components. Likewise, a new fighter plane project or new marketing campaign to promote a new product will require several contractors aside from the work units internal to an organization.

Even a simple Christmas party in the office will require a Mixed Type of Project WBS. The product requirements in planning a Christmas party will include the decorations, food and drinks. The results requirements will include the music, party games and fun Christmas traditions. The task requirements will include preparing the venue or managing the Christmas party implementation.

Project WBS Tools

Several Project WBS tools include:

  • Graphical WBS Tool
  • Table Tool
  • Workflow Tool
  • WBS Dictionary

A graphical WBS tool can include mind maps radially representing work packages or products. It can also represent a rich picture diagram of the proposed solution or an IDEF0 diagram with arrows and connectors detailing the activities or tasks. The conventional graphical WBS though is represented by rectangular boxes of deliverables in an inverted tree structure format.

A table tool is a listing of all work packages/ deliverables in table form. It can include several details such as start and end dates, quality specifications, responsible teams or persons, or even estimated costs. A set standard for a tabular WBS really depends on what purpose the project planner wants to achieve or show to the project owner, financiers, or contractors.

A workflow tool specifies the natural progression of tasks from start to finish. It usually includes a quality assurance component in the work flow as well as an execution component. Task boards are the best examples of a workflow WBS tool.

A WBS dictionary is a structured presentation of a big project which has so many work packages. This WBS tool is often necessary for complex projects with so many participating consultants, contractors or organizational departments.

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