The WBS Checklist

by Nancy Lea Hyer and Karen A. Brown

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is the centerpiece of the project plan and for a project of any reasonable size, the WBS will eventually be expressed as a document in outline form.  In the project depicted below a team has converted its WBS Mind Map (see blog entry Whole Brain Thinking for Project Management) into an outline format.

WBS Mind Map with Corresponding Outline

Here are a few tips for making your team’s outline format WBS document especially useful.

Incorporate Project Management Tasks in the WBS

When brainstorming project activities, the team should not overlook the activities involved in actually managing the project. All activities essential to executing the project will take time and consume resources. These include: budgeting, milestone reviews, status report documents, project closeout, final celebration, etc. Don’t leave these out!

Conduct a Sum-of- the-Parts Check

Team members should check their work at the end of the WBS creation process to be sure that lower-level tasks sum up to their higher-level parent task. You can conduct a sum-of-the-parts session in which the team reviews a cleaned-up version of the initial WBS. The project manager or a designated facilitator can ask “if we complete all of the work packages noted here, will we have completed the parent deliverable? Are there any extra tasks here that are not needed?”

Ask for Stakeholder Input

When sum-of-the-parts revisions are complete, invite key stakeholders outside the project team to review a cleaned up version of the WBS. (But, not too clean, or they will consider it to be final and will be less likely to contribute ideas.) This might be a good time to return to the original mind map version because this format tends to invite more input than an outline does. However, consider the visual preference of your audience. Stakeholders can make or break a project and soliciting their input on the WBS is a great way to communicate their importance to the project.

Number the Final WBS Elements

Assign hierarchical numbers to the WBS elements. For example, the tasks that roll up to deliverable 1 would be numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3.  The subtasks that together complete deliverable 1.2 would be numbered 1.11. 1.12., 1.13, and so forth. The visual above provides an example. Project scheduling software, of course, will assign these numbers when you input project information.  Here is why it matters: You can facilitate precise communication and avoid misunderstanding.  If “prepare documentation” appears several different places in the work breakdown structure each of these same-named tasks will have a unique number. This makes it easy to know which “prepare documentation” is the focus of a specific discussion.

For more on the work breakdown structure see Chapter 5 of Managing Projects: A Team-Based Approach