Five Tips for an Effective Work Breakdown Structure for A&E Firms

Posted by Jeremiah Mcnicholas on November 5, 2014

project management

In A&E project management there’s nothing more important than a comprehensive Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). While it may not be the most exciting part of the job, it helps to limit the number of surprises A&E firms encounter when executing plans and promotes accurate project reporting so you can earn the highest profit margin possible for your A&E projects. Common WBS errors can diminish the effectiveness of your project team and result in poor project performance. Here we’ll discuss some ways to prevent these possible outcomes.

1. Actually Make a Work Breakdown

This is a no-brainer, right? But unfortunately it needs to be said. The first step to creating an effective WBS is deciding to create one at all. Some project managers don’t create a WBS and instead choose a “fly by the seat of your pants” project management style. This could be due to a project’s perceived simplicity, project manager hubris, or a lack of project management training and tools necessary to create and follow a WBS. Regardless of the reason, there’s no denying a WBS can aid in guiding a project to successful completion. If you don’t agree, you’re welcome to stop reading now.

Do I still have your attention? Okay, good. For those that believe a simple project doesn’t need a WBS, consider how often a project starts simple, but ends in a huge headache. A well scoped WBS will provide you with a big picture view of everything that needs to be accomplished. This makes it easy to identify tasks that are outside of the project’s defined scope and potentially collect additional services revenue or prevent your team from doing something for nothing.

On the other hand, if you lack the proper tools to create and manage your WBS you should not be using this as an excuse to not create one. There are many project management solutions out there that help make the project planning process easier. Project management software that integrates with accounting can be even more beneficial when considering project financial success. The return on investment for solutions like these should easily justify their purchase.

2. Start with Deliverables

With all the different work necessary to deliver a complete project, it’s easy to lose track of what you’re goals are. When creating your WBS, start with your deliverables and work backwards to the specific tasks necessary for the creation of each deliverable. This means the first level of your phase structure should be “Schematic Design” rather than the tasks that will build up to the schematic design deliverable. Think through all the deliverables necessary to complete each phase of the project. Make sure your phase structure reflects all of the necessary components down to their smallest, most estimable pieces. Only the lowest levels of your phase structure should reflect the resources and tasks necessary to deliver each of these pieces.

Also, make sure the primary deliverables in the WBS can be correlated to the project proposal. The WBS will likely be represented in some way on the invoice. So when the client compares the invoice to the proposal, the proposal needs to match the deliverables represented on the invoice. There should be a direct relationship between the WBS, the proposal, and the invoice.

Of course, this also means that you will need a software solution that can track your WBS to several sub-phase levels. It is recommend that you use a solution that can track at least five levels deep and can have labor, expense, and consultant resources assigned to them with specific tasks for each. A solution with integrated accounting will also help promote consistency between the WBS and the invoice. Tools like these will help ensure you are prepared for even the most complex of projects.

3. Strive for Mutual Exclusivity

It’s important that each phase individually contain everything necessary for the completion of that particular deliverable. While the reality of the project may result in overlap between phases, plan for each phase breakdown to tell the full narrative of the resources, tasks, and other deliverables necessary to complete the phase and provide the deliverable.

When the phases in your WBS are overly reliant on each other, your plan may become disorganized and overly complicated. Plan for each phase to be as complete and self-contained as possible to make sure your team’s time is used as effectively as possible and project deliverables are completed along the correct timeline.

Of course, you shouldn’t plan to duplicate your efforts to keep phases mutually exclusive. An effective WBS will be organized so that distinct deliverables are completed on a timeline that will facilitate the execution of subsequent dependent phases.

4. Think of Everything

I know that thinking of everything sounds a bit unrealistic, but your goal for the WBS process should be to create a breakdown that is as exhaustive as possible. Think critically about every facet of the project down to the minutiae so there are as few surprises as possible as you execute on your plan. That is the main purpose of this exercise.

Furthermore, make sure your team is aware that if it isn’t in the WBS, it isn’t a part of the project. If your WBS is as complete as possible, there should be very little room for additional tasks or deliverables. This will help keep additional services in check and act as a reminder that any work that’s done outside of your WBS will likely be beyond of the scope of the project and should be eligible for additional compensation from the project owner. If tracking additional services is a challenge, you may consider looking at a project management solution that can simplify the capture of additional services and integrate with your billing process to ensure you aren’t leaving money on the table.

5. Plan for Flexibility

As mentioned above, it may be unrealistic to think that your WBS can account for every possible facet of the project. We would love for all of our projects to always go according to plan, but unfortunately this is seldom the case. Until we discover the project management crystal ball, make sure the project plan prepares your team for as many potential roadblocks as possible. Pad your timelines to compensate for unforeseen outcomes that can delay the completion of deliverables and potentially postpone tasks dependent on the delayed deliverable. It’s always better to plan conservatively and be ahead of schedule than it is to plan a tight schedule and end up behind when things don’t go exactly right.

Hopefully you’ve taken away some valuable information to improve the planning process for your next work breakdown structure. If you’re still feeling like you’re ill-equipped for the task, I’d suggest taking a look at Ajera. It’s an integrated accounting and project management solution specifically designed for AE firms that can help make the processes described here a breeze. You can find more information about Ajera here.