How to create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

A well-crafted Work Breakdown Structure can be invaluable on a project. Follow this short step-by-step guide on how to create a basic Work Breakdown Structure for your next project.

I create a WBS as soon as possible, preferably while the sales team is still busy proposing the solution to a client. Using the approach I recommend below, the WBS clearly depicts the deliverables the project will produce, and the activities required to create those deliverables. This benefits everybody from your internal team members, to the customer and other vendors involved on your project. If the teams can visualize the actual deliverables, and how we are going to get there, we are one step closer to project success.

However, any WBS structure will not do. Creating a shopping list of 100’s of activities is just plain stupid. I have done this before and you end up spending all day trying to keep your schedule up-to-date instead of managing the team. A WBS should be kept simple, but have sufficient detail to provide accurate cost and schedule information.

So, how do we do this? Decompose a WBS by starting with your phases, then deliverables, then activities. Add milestones, throw in a splash of colour, and that’s it!

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What is the difference between duration, work, effort, hours, and man-days?

I come from the Microsoft Project world where schedules are built using duration and work. However, ever so often team members refer to effort, hours, or my personal pet peeve “man-days”. What are all of these and how do they compare?

My nonprofessional definitions are summarized as follows, with examples below:

  • Duration – the amount of time it takes to complete a task. Measured in days, from task start to task end. Can also be referred to as calendar time.
  • Work – the amount of hours it takes to complete a task. Measured in hours, from task start to task end.
  • Effort – the same as work if you’re talking about hours. Technically, effort is a % allocation of your “focus” on a task.
  • Hours – the same as work.
  • Man-days – the same as work, but expressed in days instead of hours.

To illustrate, we will use a simple example: We need to build a wall.

Example 1: Duration

The wall will take one builder 10 working days to build. In Microsoft Project, this would be represented as follows:

  • Duration is 10 days
  • Work is 80 hours (Assuming the builder works 8 hours a day, that’s 10 x 8 = 80 hours)
  • Effort is 80 hours
  • Hours is 80 hours
  • Man-days is 10 days. Be careful! Man-days is not the same as duration. See the next example.

Example 2: Man-days

The same wall will take two builders 5 working days to build.

  • Duration is 5 days
  • Work is still 80 hours (2 builders, each working 8 hours a day for 5 days)
  • Effort is 80 hours
  • Hours is 80 hours
  • Man-days is 10 days

Example 3:

We have two builders, but the client will only allow us to work for 4 hours in the mornings. Thereafter, we need to leave the building site. The same wall will take the two builders 10 working days to build.

  • Duration is 10 days
  • Work is still 80 hours (2 builders, each working 4 hours a day for 10 days)
  • Effort is 80 hours
  • Hours is 80 hours
  • Man-days is 10 days

In Summary:

When team members start using non-standard terminology, make sure that you understand exactly what they mean. When quoting customers on a time and materials basis, work is the only reliable source in the examples above, work remained at 80 hours regardless of how the work was resourced. Wherever possible, I always refer to Duration and Work. These are two “standards” that most other Microsoft Project users will be familiar with. Leave a comment and let me know if you found this useful.