Construction sites are essentially controlled chaos, and scheduling and managing a project can be overwhelming. A work breakdown structure is a great way to make a complex project seem simple. By offering both a macro and micro view of the entire job, everyone understands how their work fits in and they’re free to improve efficiency, coordination, and collaboration.
What is a work breakdown structure (WBS)?
A work breakdown structure is a process of dividing the entire project scope into smaller, more manageable parts. The work required to go from one step of the project to the next is clearly identified so it’s easy to understand how work – from first furnishing, all the way down to the punch list – contributes toward project completion. To make things even more simple, work breakdown structures are put into graphs and flowcharts for quick and easy access.
Work breakdown structure and construction project management
Work breakdown structure is certainly not unique to the construction industry. It’s a useful tool in just about any field where complex projects are tackled. Still, the construction industry uniquely benefits from breaking things down a step further, and a visual tool like a WBS flowchart will help project participants understand where they fit into the big picture.
There are many benefits to embracing work breakdown structure, but three areas that really benefit construction are
- 1. communication and accountability,
- 2. project scheduling, and
- 3. the schedule of values
Communication and accountability
By using the work breakdown structure process, construction businesses can obtain a quick and clear overview of the project objectives. It allows all project stakeholders to see the forest through the trees. Since everything is out in the open, the chances of miscommunication are diminished, which increases efficiency. Every project team has specific assignments and responsibilities, and they can see how their work contributes toward the end goal.
When trying project planning, looking at the build as a whole can be overwhelming. Breaking the project down into manageable portions can help all participants better understand how all the moving parts will come together. With that understanding, communication and accountability will come easier on the job site, and graphic representations provide an easy, approachable reference so everyone is better informed.
The two main characteristics of a WBS is the hierarchical (top-down) setup, and the ability to identify every task and work-package. The top-down structure identifies the milestones and dependencies between activities. This is a helpful reference when setting up a project schedule, especially if the project is using the critical path method. Knowing the relationship between tasks and phases can act as a guide to work sequencing and resource allocation.
Schedule of values
Perhaps most important is the contribution to the schedule of values. Effectively assigning costs to work items can make or break a project before shovel hits dirt. The very first step in the drafting process of a schedule of values is breaking down work into line items. Then, prices can be assigned to separate entries. Depending on the level of detail put into a work breakdown structure, this can almost take care of itself.
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How to build a work breakdown structure
As the long-winded definition states, this is a hierarchical, or top-down approach. To help illustrate each step, let’s take a super-simplified example of the construction of a new house.
Statement of Work
It all starts with the overall project’s statement of work. This is the outline and basic framework of everything that needs to go into the project.
Based on the statement of work, the next step is to identify the phases of the project. These are the high-level items or major deliverables on a WBS flowchart. Using our house construction example, these could be phases such as foundation, exterior, interior, etc.
The next tier under project phases is the deliverables. The project deliverables are the tasks that need to be accomplished to finish out the project phase. For our example, the deliverables for the interior phase will include items such as plumbing or electrical. However, depending on the size or complexity of the project, there may be a need to divide between the main deliverables and minor, or sub-deliverables.
Lastly, the lowest level of the chart will be the individual work tasks needed to complete the deliverable, such as rough-in, installation, fixtures, trim, and so on. The collection of work required to complete the deliverable is known as a “work package.”
Developing a work breakdown structure is a great step for successful project management. But, a WBS is only as good as the one drafting it. One thing to always keep in mind is the “100% rule.” A well-drafted work breakdown structure should be exhaustive. Every work package should be broken down as far as possible – nothing should be left out or taken for granted. That way, any gaps or misunderstandings can be identified.
Another rule of thumb is to be sure all items are mutually exclusive. Meaning, all work should be independent of the other work listed. If there’s overlap, that’s a sign that those items should probably be combined in the work breakdown structure.
Lastly, put together a WBS dictionary. The work breakdown schedule is meant to be an easy reference. Work items and deliverables are usually labeled by one word to two words. Having a dictionary or glossary available can provide clarity and reduce the risk of miscommunication and mistakes due to differences in terminology or jargon.
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