PM-Foundations – Organizing Your WBS

Creating a well-organized Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is always on my list of “critical few” project management best practice areas. The WBS is utilized to effectively define the scope of the project, decomposing the work down into components that can be estimated, scheduled, and tracked/controlled throughout the project life cycle. The WBS makes the scope of the project actionable in the form of a deliverable oriented and hierarchical view of the work. The WBS defines the scope of the project down to the lowest level deliverables called work packages.

One of the most common questions I get when discussing the WBS with project teams is, “What is the best way to organize the project deliverables?” A lot of people think the answer must be obvious, because it does not seem to get discussed much by the team when the WBS takes its initial shape / form. It is not at all a stupid question. There are two very different ways that team members think about the project. One way of thinking about the project is focused on the product that is being created, and the other perspective is based upon how the project work will be completed. Selecting one school of thought over the other will drive a totally different end result in terms of the organization of the WBS. As the project manager, you have to live with the organization of your WBS throughout the project life cycle (it drives the organization of the project schedule, as well as the monitoring / controlling processes), therefore you want to be sure you have purposefully selected an organization approach that works for the project team.

Product Based WBS Organization

For those of us with experience in a manufacturing environment, you are familiar with the concept of the bill of material. The bill of material describes how to build a product from the end product down to the lowest level parts or components. The bill of material is utilized to manage building products in a repeatable, efficient, and cost effective manner (automated utilizing an ERP system). When designing or developing a new product, the bill of material is a logical manner to organize the work that needs to be completed. For product development type projects, organizing the WBS in this manner helps the team think about and visualize whether or not they have effectively accounted for and planned all aspects of the product. This approach also provides an understanding of how different aspects of the product are coming together as the product development effort progresses.

Benefits

Downside

  • Provides the ability to trace the components of the product down to the lowest level sub-components
  • Improves the visibility of the current status of product components (particularly important when working with suppliers)
  • Engineers relate well to the WBS organization structure
  • The WBS is not organized from “beginning to end” of the project life cycle
  • Top levels of the WBS remain open until the end of the project
  • Non-product related deliverables do not fit well in the WBS (unless they are define as part of product’s the bill of material structure)

Project Based WBS Organization

As a project manager, I generally think about the project effort in terms of how the work is going to be completed (based upon the timing and dependencies associated with deliverables). With this approach the work is grouped into work streams (sub-projects), and project phases (defined with major milestones). As you get into lower levels of the WBS the organization of deliverables is based upon the different components of the project or product. This approach allows the project manager to update the project “from top to bottom” as the project progresses (assuming the project progresses in pretty much the same manner as it was planned).

Benefits

Downside

  • The “flow” of the WBS relates closely to the way project work will be completed
  • As work is completed, components of the WBS can be “closed”
  • Generally, easier for project managers to update progress
  • Difficult to utilize the WBS to obtain/communicate the “bill of materials” relating to the product
  • Difficult to highlight the status of specific product components
  • Engineers may struggle with understanding the schedule (and often complain about it)

 

What is the Best Fit for My Project?

There are good reasons to organize your WBS from both the product and project perspective. Below are several factors to take into consideration when you are working with your team to determine the best approach for organizing your WBS.

  • Standalone vs. Dependent Work Efforts – Where are the majority of the dependencies and interrelationships within the separate work efforts? Are the dependencies more focused on the product components or the phases of the project? Are the project milestones tied to the product components or gates in the project life cycle? It is much easier to manage dependencies in a vertical manner within a single work stream, rather than in a horizontal manner across multiple work streams.
  • Wide vs. Deep – Based upon my experience, it is much easier to manage a project that has a WBS that is deeper (vertical) than it is wide (horizontal). Part of this preference goes back to the fact that it is easier to manage dependencies within a single work stream (vs. across work streams). However, I also find that it is easier to manage and measure progress of the overall project (solution) if there are fewer separate work streams that link directly to the highest level of the WBS (the over solution / project summary). For example, if there are 15 major product components associated with your project, with significant dependencies across the components, you should have a good case for organizing the WBS around the project life cycle.
  • Who Cares? – Who are going to be the major consumers of the information maintained within the WBS and the project schedule? Is the effort more product or project focused? If it is a very product focused effort, largely comprised of a team of engineers, you may be fighting an uphill battle to suggest that the WBS should be organized based upon the project phases.
  • What Does Progress Look Like? – How will you be receiving updates on project progress? Will progress updates be organized around separate product related work efforts, or based upon the project phases and upcoming project milestones? Again, the answer to these questions will be largely dependent upon the composition and focus of your project team.
  • Iterative Implications – When the team makes the decision to deliver the project in an iterative manner, they are making the decision that the WBS needs to be organized around the iterations. Iterations are time based, and therefore the WBS takes on a project based organization structure (with the project phases being the individual iterations and milestones for deployments).
  • Either approach will work – As you can tell from my analysis above, I am a project manager and obviously favor one approach over the other. The bottom line is, either approach can work for you and the project team. I can honestly say that some of my most successful project were managed with a product based WBS. In some cases additional steps are required in the WBS definition, and schedule set-up to provide views of the schedule / status from both a product and project perspective. This can be accomplished in MS Project by creating custom fields and special views (using sort and filter functions with the custom fields).

Using MS Project to Improve Project Performance

People often ask me what I find to be the most useful tool to perform my job as a project manager. I pause when responding to this question, because I prepare my share of presentations in MS PowerPoint, create many project deliverables in MS Word, manage my budget using Excel, and I have expressed in many blogs how to improve your project environment using SharePoint. However, because I view the project schedule to be at the core of good project management (my bias as a Time Management instructor shines through), I generally respond that MS Project is the tool that I rely on the most to do my job as a project manager.

In the enterprise project management space, MS Project Server has a lot of competition, but in the project management tool space it is my opinion that MS Project is by far best in terms of features, flexibility, and ease of use. The focus of this blog is how project management tools, specifically MS Project, can be used to improve your ability to manage project performance, from the perspective of becoming both more efficient and effective as a project manager.

Common Myths about using MS Project and Other Project Management Tools

  • I am too busy managing the project to deal with maintaining a project schedule – My response to this myth is that you are too busy managing a project to NOT create and maintain a project schedule. I have seen plenty of situations where the team has invested time and effort in a very extensive project schedule, and then they do nothing with it once they start progressing through project execution. This generally happens because the project manager does not know how to use MS Project to effectively progress and update the project schedule. The time required to create and maintain the project schedule pays for itself over and over throughout the project life cycle with the information required to understand and communicate what needs to be done when, and by whom.
  • It is just as effective and much easier to use Excel to manage the project schedule – I will admit that if you are creating a list of activities/tasks and assignments, Excel does the trick just fine. However, once you need to sequence that tasks, estimate durations and work, and load resource requirements, you quickly get beyond the capabilities of Excel. The time to required to set-up these capabilities in Excel would be much better invested in leveraging the robust out-of-the-box scheduling features of MS Project.
  • Non-project managers cannot understand MS Project – I agree that most non-project managers have a hard time relating to the details maintained within MS Project. Predecessors, durations, WBS are foreign terms to most non-project managers. However, MS Project provides the ability to tailor views of the schedule in ways that non-project management stakeholders find easy to understand and use. From my perspective, it is much more productive to create useful views in MS Project (one time), than spend the time to reenter schedule information into other tools for presentation purposes.
  • Does not work with iterative delivery approaches, only waterfall – Having been the project manager on plenty of Agile projects, I understand that there are additional tools utilized heavily to manage scope and measure progress (the product backlog and burn down charts). However, as a project manager you still need a project schedule to establish and manage overall timing related expectations. The schedule will not contain the details of the sprint, but it is utilized to put the sprints in the context of the other project related activities (e.g., product releases, training, and knowledge transfer).
  • MS Project has a mind of its own – I was mentoring a project manager one time who told me, “his tool had been compromised”. Admittedly, a certain level of complexity is a by-product of the features and flexibility of MS Project. Therefore if you are not familiar with how to create a schedule that can be easily progressed and updated throughout project execution, the project schedule becomes an enigma rather than an enabler. If you are not well versed in MS Project and/or the construct of your project schedule, the impact of updates to the schedule become difficult to understand and communicate. The simple answer to this myth is to get the training and mentoring required to be proficient using MS Project.

6 Ways MS Project Helps Manage Project Performance

1. Breaking down the work: MS Project provides the ability to easily capture and organize the WBS (Work Breakdown Structure). The use of indentation makes it easy to decompose the work from the highest level (project phases) to the lowest levels (tasks) of the project. In addition, the ability to collapse specific sections of the schedule allows you to focus on specific areas of the work breakdown. Some project teams prefer a graphical representation of the work breakdown. The tasks can be easily be imported/exported from MS Project to tools like Visio to support the desire to review a graphical depiction of the WBS.

2. Sequencing Activities: Dependency relationships are utilized to link two tasks in the most logical manner possible. The default in MS Project is Finish-to-Start (FS), but this may not be the relationship that most accurately defines the linkage between two tasks. This relationship may represent a “hard” dependency (this must happen in a certain manner), or a “soft” dependency (a relationship set up to establish a logical flow of the project activities). In addition to establishing the relationship, predecessors and successors can be utilized to create leads (acceleration or overlap) and lags (delays or gaps) between schedule activities. MS Project provides a lot of flexibility to ensure the Project Manager has the ability to sequence the work in a manner that reflects the way the work will be executed.

3. Creating the timeline: After the project activities, durations and dependencies are loaded, the schedule is starting to take on some shape and form. The Gantt view is one of the most effective tools for communicating the timeline associated with key summary tasks and milestones. Use the MS project filters to limit the tasks to those that convey the appropriate message.

4. Managing resource loading / utilization: The mechanics of loading resources into the project schedule is very straightforward. MS Project provides the ability to either load effort based upon estimated hours to complete or percent the resource is allocated to the tasks. In addition, the resource utilization view displays the effort planned for each team member and the ability to make the appropriate adjustments to “level” the resource utilization.

5. Progressing the project: Maintaining the project schedule throughout project execution is referred to in project manager speak as “progressing the schedule”. In MS Project the project manager has the ability to update the % complete, estimated to complete, and the actual effort worked. In addition, the project manager will make updates to duration & work estimates, dependencies, and tasks to ensure the schedule continues to reflect the way planned work will be completed.

6. Understanding project impacts: Upon completion of the planning process, a baseline “snapshot” of the project schedule is saved in MS Project. This baseline provides the ability to measure current schedule performance against the original plan to understand and communicate actual and planned impacts to the project schedule. These impacts are reflected in the schedule as variances that are captured for the start and finish dates of individual activities, summary tasks (i.e., project phases), and project milestones.

Top 6 Project Management Best Practices

What about Project Management Best Practices

I do a lot of blogging about project management best practices. I firmly believe that it is the effective implementation and consistent application of PM best practices that differentiates successful projects from challenged projects. Best practices represent the practical application of the concepts, processes, and tools defined in the PMBOK® and other sources of knowledge. Project management is a very mature competency, and there is no shortage of resources to understand and define best practices, but the key lies in identifying the “critical few” that are key to project delivery success in your project environment. Below is the graphic that depicts the “critical few” included in Cardinal’s PM Foundations program.

Practical application of these best practices drives a consistent project management approach, and tangible business results:

  • Quicker ramp-up of project managers
  • Easier integration of projects in a multi-project environment
  • More productive project managers (not inventing processes and tools on the fly)
  • Equips project managers with tools to “fill the gaps” in the client environment
  • Better overall team performance – delivering on customer expectations (including measurement of performance)

These are the tangible business results that separate good project managers apart from “the pack”.

My Top 6 Best Practices

If I could only have 6 best practices to put in my toolkit as I ventured into a new project assignment (or mentor a new project manager), these are the ones I would select.

1. Project Organization: Forming the project team sounds pretty basic, but it is amazing how many project teams launch the project without performing stakeholder analysis, and defining the project organization. Important elements of the project organization include project sponsors, the core team, and understanding other key stakeholders. The use of a RACI is a flexible and effective tool within this best practice area.

2. WBS: The WBS defines the scope of the project and breaks the work down into components that can be schedule and estimated, and easily monitored and controlled. Simply put, a WBS is a deliverable oriented hierarchy that defines the work of the project, and only the work of the project. The use of facilitated WBS sessions represents a key technique within this best practice area.

3. Resource Loaded Project Schedule: The project schedule utilizes the WBS to define the activities, sequence, durations, and resources required to complete the project work. What does a good project schedule look like? Here are a few questions to help test your schedule:

  • Are the deliverables and activities broken down to a level that can be estimated and tracked?
  • Has accountability / responsibility been established for deliverables and activities?
  • Can you easily follow the flow of the project work?
  • Do the milestones appear to be reasonable and achievable?
  • Does the resource usage link appropriately to the project budget?

4. Managing Project Change: Change is an inevitable element of managing a project – nothing works out exactly as planned. The project manager effectively manages change by maintaining the appropriate balance between control and discipline to manage to the baseline plan, and flexibility to adapt the plans to meet customer expectations. Nobody wants to be “that” project manager that leads a project that delivers on-time and under budget, but still has an unhappy customer. The following are the key aspects of this best practice area:

  • Definition of a change in the context of your project
  • Understanding the sources and early warning signs of change
  • Establishing a process to manage change
  • Measuring the cumulative impact of change

5. Measuring Performance: This best practice area involves keeping your eye on the appropriate project performance measures to proactively identify potential problems, and engage the team to identify and implement corrective actions. Measuring project performance includes schedule, budget, and supplier performance. Use of earned value to measure schedule and budget performance represents a tool within this best practice area.

6. Closing the Project: A best practice area that is often minimized or entirely over looked is project closure. At the end of a project, many project managers are busy preparing for their next project or client, and miss a prime opportunity to leave a lasting impact on the client organization. Project closure starts with effectively shutting down project activities, validating all product deliverables are complete and key product issues closed, and smoothly transitioning resources to new roles. The second aspect of this best practice area is preparing the project performance report (also referred to as the post-project assessment. Creating the project performance report includes gathering input from key stakeholders, and identifying improvement actions to be implemented for future projects.