As project managers we’re often so focused on the project plan, schedule, and budget, we forget what the ultimate goal of the project is to begin with. When a senior leader comes along and says, “Oh, by the way, while you’re in there doing those activities, can you add this one on too?” we evaluate the request in terms of the impact it’ll have on the project schedule or budget rather than on how well the request actually fits with the result we’re seeking from the initiative as a whole.

That’s why a work breakdown structure can be such a valuable tool. It provides a mechanism for keeping the project in scope by specifying the outcomes of the project — the work packages that need to be delivered — not when they should be done or how. The WBS approach is especially useful in situations where deliverables are less tangible or those responsible for getting a successful outcome don’t think like project managers.

That’s the case at Alberta Health Services, which is currently planning construction of a new 1.7-million-square-foot hospital south of Calgary. There’s plenty that follows traditional project management practice — particularly in the area of construction. That’s to be expected.

But according to Ralph Kuhn, the senior planner and scheduler for Capital Projects at the health organization, there’s also plenty that isn’t concrete, such as figuring out what a patient interaction should look like and how the processes related to that should transpire in the new hospital. Frequently, the people involved in those activities are “marvelous at their jobs, but they need help in visualizing their part of the work and then quantifying it: ‘We need it by this day and this is how big it is…'”

As Kuhn explains, “We do a lot of that brainstorming in our meeting rooms, which have a 48×36-inch poster of the work breakdown structure. The schedules aren’t well developed yet. They’ll trickle out. But right now we have to know how big this beast is. For this project we have 150 parallel workstreams that have to come together at key points to get validated and approved before we treat the first patient.”

To help “projectize” activities such as those, Kuhn began using WBS Director from QuantumPM about four years ago. This product integrates with and works inside of Microsoft Project. As the work breakdown structure is laid out by project participants, WBS Director creates a Project schedule framework based on the deliverables defined to meet the project scope. The project manager can then complete the scheduling with the activities, dependencies, and resources required to support delivery.

Figure 1. WBS Director guides the user through definition of a project by defining deliverables first.

Focusing on Deliverables, Not Just the Schedule

This approach has several advantages. First, because the two programs are integrated, WBS Director keeps the narrative about that project — its goals, objectives, and deliverables — up front as the plan evolves. The two components — deliverables and schedule — are tied together to keep the project in scope.

Second, if a manager wants to add a specific activity, the tool prompts the user to tie the activity to a particular deliverable. If no connection exists, that provides an opportunity for the project manager to start a more nuanced discussion about scope: “Which work package does that fit in Is it OK to increase the cost of a given work package by this much in order to add that activity?…” Although activities without a direct affiliation to a specific deliverable may still be added to the plan, this extra focus keeps the original goals up front and prevents scope creep from getting out of hand.

Figure 2.WBS Director keeps project deliverables uppermost, to prevent scope creep from getting out of hand.

Focusing on Deliverables, Not Just the Schedule

Third, WBS Director lets the user organize reporting around deliverables, which keeps managers focused on larger activities, where they can have an impact, as opposed to having them “in the weeds” doing micro-management: “Why did you miss this date…”.

The latest version, which is compatible with Project and Project Server 2010, adds a keyword search capability that will bring up work packages related to whatever detail is under review. The new release also includes analytics features to allow users to reconcile the project schedule more easily with the related work breakdown structure. This version, which is 64-bit compatible, also adds additional reporting and other usability features.

Kuhn is happy with the combination of Microsoft Project and WBS Director. “A lot of this intangible work is hard to map or model with finish and start dates. There’s work that happens in parallel, there’s engagement-type work, and socialization work, and key decisions. If people work comfortably like that, I’m not going to force them to use critical path methodology when it truly doesn’t model the way they operate.”

The new release of WBS Director, $299, is available from QuantumPM. MPUG members may purchase WBS-Director for $250 during February 2011.