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6 min read

How to Use a Work Breakdown Structure in Construction

The CrewCost Team
Published Dec 22, 2023

Construction projects can be incredibly complex, and what’s more, every single construction project is unique. As you begin to plan a project schedule and sequence of work activities, you’ll need to start organizing the different components of the work to be performed. A powerful tool that streamlines that process and ensures successful outcomes is the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

What is a Work Breakdown Structure?

A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) uses a hierarchical structure to break a project into smaller, more manageable components. It provides a visual representation of all the work required to complete a project, breaking it down into clear deliverables and tasks. It’s a way of understanding the project goals at a high level and then systematically and logically developing the subcomponents to ensure they are planned and scheduled for, ultimately making the project goals achievable.

Breaking Down the Work Breakdown Structure

A typical WBS in construction involves the following levels:

Tasks – These are the major deliverables or phases of the project (e.g. Permitting, Mobilization, Site Preparation, Foundation, Structural Work, Interior Finishes). The tasks are good for understanding intended project outcomes, like accomplishing a specific task by a certain date, which is known as a milestone. Tasks, though, do not provide a lot of detail into all of the different work that they encompass.

Subtasks – These are also known as work packages, which are smaller, manageable groups of related work activities within each task (e.g., Excavation, Concrete Pouring, Framing, Electrical Installation). Subtasks represent one level down from a Phase and provide more details than at the Task level.

Activities – These are the specific actions required to complete each work package (e.g., Rent heavy equipment, Excavate for the slab, Place reinforcing). This is most granular level you will reach from a planning perspective, but provides a high level of detail about the specific item being performed.

work breakdown structure construction example

Types of Work Breakdown Structures

There are three types of work breakdown structures that are relevant to construction. The logic of breaking down the the parts of a project is the same, but the outcome differs between the types:

An Activity-based Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a method for organizing project work into manageable sections by breaking it down into specific activities or tasks. This approach is beneficial for detailed planning and execution of projects. Here’s an overview of how you might structure an Activity-based WBS:

  • Project Definition and Initiation
    • Identify project scope and objectives.
    • Establish project team.
  • Planning
    • Develop detailed project plan.
    • Create activity-based WBS.
    • Define tasks and assign responsibilities.
    • Schedule timeline and milestones.
    • Budget allocation and resource planning.
  • Execution
    • Conduct kickoff meeting.
    • Begin task execution based on WBS.
    • Procurement of necessary resources.
    • Implement activities as per plan.
  • Monitoring and Controlling
    • Track project progress against WBS tasks.
    • Adjust schedules and resources as needed.
    • Manage changes and updates to project plan.
    • Quality control checks.
  • Closeout
    • Complete final project deliverables.
    • Obtain customer or stakeholder acceptance.
    • Document lessons learned.
    • Release project resources.
    • Formal closure and handover.

A Deliverable-based Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) organizes the team’s work into manageable sections, with a specific focus on the tangible outputs or deliverables of the project. This approach ensures that the project is structured around the delivery of specific outcomes, making it easier to track progress and manage resources effectively. Here’s a breakdown of how a Deliverable-based WBS might be structured:

  • Project Conceptualization
    • Deliverable: Project Proposal
      • Research and data gathering
      • Proposal drafting
      • Review and approval process
    • Deliverable: Project Scope Statement
      • Define project scope
      • Identify deliverables and objectives
  • Design Phase
    • Deliverable: Design Documents
      • Conceptual design creation
      • Detailed design development
      • Design review and finalization
  • Development/Construction Phase
    • Deliverable: Prototype or Beta Version (for software projects)
      • Development of core functionalities
      • Integration of different modules
    • Deliverable: Completed Structure (for construction projects)
      • Construction of foundational elements
      • Building of structural components
  • Testing and Quality Assurance
    • Deliverable: Test Reports
      • Execution of testing procedures
      • Documentation of test results
      • Implementation of quality assurance standards
  • Implementation/Deployment Phase
    • Deliverable: Final Product/Project
      • Final preparation and packaging
      • Delivery or deployment of the final product
      • Customer or stakeholder training
  • Project Closure
    • Deliverable: Project Closure Report
      • Compilation of project documentation
      • Final project review and report preparation
      • Official project closure and sign-off
  • Post-Implementation Review
    • Deliverable: Post-Implementation Evaluation Report
      • Evaluation of project outcomes
      • Lessons learned documentation
      • Recommendations for future projects

A Phase-based Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) organizes project tasks and activities based on the different phases or stages of the project. This approach aligns with the natural progression of a project from initiation to closure, helping in effective planning and monitoring. Here’s a typical structure for a Phase-based WBS:

  • Initiation Phase
    • Identify project goals and objectives.
    • Conduct feasibility study.
    • Develop project charter.
    • Establish project governance structure.
    • Stakeholder identification and analysis.
  • Planning Phase (Preconstruction Phase)
    • Develop a detailed project plan.
    • Define project scope and constraints.
    • Schedule development and timeline planning.
    • Resource allocation and budgeting.
    • Risk assessment and management planning.
  • Execution Phase (Course of Construction Phase)
    • Kick-off meeting and team mobilization.
    • Execute project tasks as per the plan.
    • Resource management and allocation.
    • Implement quality assurance procedures.
    • Stakeholder communication and management.
  • Monitoring and Controlling Phase (Course of Construction Phase)
    • Track project progress and performance.
    • Change management and control.
    • Quality control and assurance activities.
    • Budget and resource management.
    • Risk and issue management.
  • Closeout Phase
    • Finalize project deliverables.
    • Obtain stakeholder acceptance and approval.
    • Conduct project review and evaluation.
    • Document lessons learned and best practices.
    • Disband project team and release resources.
  • Post-Project Evaluation
    • Conduct post-implementation review.
    • Evaluate project outcomes against objectives.
    • Analyze project successes and areas for improvement.
    • Document findings and recommendations for future projects.

While all three types of WBS structures present different benefits to organizing and scheduling the work of your project, it will likely be a mix of all three of these WBS types that ends up being utilized on your jobs.

How to Create an Effective Work Breakdown Structure

So what things do you need to think of when you begin to create the WBS for your project? There are several considerations to consider when you’re creating a work breakdown structure to make it complete, logical, and employable for a project:

  • Capture the full scope. – You need to make sure that you have done the due diligence to understand and conceptually capture all of the scope of the work. Missing scope or scope gaps, unfortunately, occur more often than one would think. Scope gaps create problems with the logical order of the WBS and can lead to schedule delays, added costs with no budget, and rework.
  • Identify major deliverables and phases. – Understanding and communicating the importance of certain phases and deliverables is crucial to making sure those goals are met. This starts with understanding what the important deliverables and phases of the project are in the first place and giving those items appropriate weight in your planning.
  • Break down deliverables into smaller work packages. – By breaking down the main deliverable into smaller work packages, you can begin to understand the sequence the different work packages need to go in in order to logically work. For example, the earthwork needs to be performed prior to the foundation being constructed.
  • Define activities within each work package. – Magnifying even further from the work package, begin to define specific activities with each work package or subtask that make it up. For example, if the work package was concrete foundation, then the more granular activities may include for, reinforce, place, and strip, or F/R/P/S.
  • Use a visual tool to create the WBS. – Software solutions offer an easy way to quickly visualize, iterate a WBS. Many scheduling and construction management software platforms have some level of visual representation of a WBS structure. Additionally, hand-drawn diagrams or ‘napkin sketches’ can also be created at the very early, conceptual phase of a project.

Pitfalls to Avoid

With the WBS not only serving as a logical structure for how your project is organized, but also as a communication tool to inform all members of the project management team to understand how to coordinate and prioritize certain aspects of the project in harmony. With that in mind, here are a couple of common mistakes that can cause a WBS to be an issue on a project. Making the WBS too complicated can confuse different stakeholders and has the potential to not be utilized effectively if stakeholders on the team do not understand it or it is too complex.

Also, as mentioned previously, missing scope or scope gaps can cause your WBS to become ineffective because it doesn’t contain accurate information and isn’t realistic to the actual needs of the full scope of the project. Doing a thorough review with multiple team members of the contract documents, especially the original contract (including addenda), all applicable specifications from potentially several AHJs, and all drawings (Including revisions).

Finally, failure to maintain the accuracy and integrity of the WBS throughout the course of the project and not taking into account any changes that add additional scope and, thus, the WBS, is a common issue. The usefulness of the WBS is only as much as its relevance to the current state of the projects and the work therein, so taking changes into account is needed on a regular basis.

A WBS Can Help You Build More Profitable Projects

Incorporating a robust work breakdown structure on your project can help in several ways:

  • Improved project planning and control
  • Enhanced communication and collaboration
  • Clearer task assignments and responsibilities
  • Better resource allocation and tracking
  • Increased efficiency and productivity
  • Reduced risk of project delays and cost overruns

The WBS, in order to truly be effective, needs to break down work items into smaller more manageable chunks that individuals and teams can use to allocate resources, plan and schedule against, and delegate responsibilities, both with internal and external stakeholders. Ultimately, the WBS serves as a roadmap to success for construction projects, ensuring clarity, organization, and a higher likelihood of achieving desired outcomes within budget and on schedule.

Further Reading: How to Create Construction Schedules That Build Profitable Projects

The CrewCost Team

The CrewCost Team consists of men and women who have worked in the construction industry as project managers, general contractors, sub contractors and more. They share their decades of experience on our blog as a way to help other contractors grow healthier and more profitable businesses.

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