Why should I use a product-oriented work breakdown structure (WBS)? You may not believe how often I get asked that exact question. So let's go beyond best practices and the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) guide and dig deeper to find out how this benefits you – all of you across every industry.

For those who don’t know, a WBS is a management tool that hierarchically subdivides the hardware, services, and data required to produce an end product. That’s a mouthful and may seem intimidating at first glance. Hierarchically subdividing refers to the process of taking the end product, generally whatever you will deliver to the client, and breaking it into multiple levels of manageable pieces, which is known as decomposition.

Let’s demonstrate this by putting ourselves in the shoes of my favorite Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation1, Leslie Knope – arguably the queen of planning. Leslie organizes the Harvest Festival to bring money back into the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. Our end product is the Harvest Festival grand opening – that is the first tier in our hierarchical WBS. This tier often represents the total program that a program manager is responsible for.

The second tier in our structure represents various projects that make up the program. The Harvest Festival is a massive undertaking, so we decompose it into several projects that have different, independent goals that contribute to the festival’s success:

  • Entertainment
  • Food
  • Media
  • Health and Safety
  • Venue

Below the project level, we have large tasks that are managed by the control account manager, or CAM. We do not want organizations in our WBS – only products. This is the point where we match our work products to a single organization or person, the CAM. We divide entertainment into several large tasks, known as control accounts, and assign our CAMs:

  • Music - CAM: Andy Dwyer
  • Carnival Rides - CAM: Tom Haverford
  • Carnival Games - CAM: April Ludgate
  • Corn Maze - CAM: Leslie Knope
  • Petting Zoo - CAM: Jerry Gergich

For our example, the next level will be the work package level. Work packages are the lowest level of the WBS. This is the only level where work is performed and resources are assigned to produce the specific deliverable. If we continue to decompose the music control account, we may develop work packages, such as:

  • Children's Musical Entertainment
  • Rock Entertainment
  • Jazz Entertainment
  • Folk Entertainment
  • Feature Entertainment
  • Infrastructure
  • Stage Management
  • Lighting and Effects
  • Sound Engineering

We’ve reached the lowest level breakout of the music control account. The process of decomposition continues for each of the other control accounts and for each of the projects. This gives us a total view of all the products and work that make up the program, “Harvest Festival Grand Opening.”

There, we have our WBS. You’ll notice that every element in the structure is a noun (product). Another method for structuring the WBS is process orientation. Some examples of process-oriented elements might be scheduling entertainment, booking entertainers, renting carnival rides, or designing a corn maze. The process-oriented method is not recommended, so what makes the product-oriented method better?

  • You can easily see the total scope of work, how each element of work is related to another, and find missing components.

For example, I decomposed the entertainment control package and started wondering where the generators were to get power to all of these things like lighting, sound equipment, and rides. Leslie Knope knows first-hand that the generators will overload when you need them most, so we need to include them in our plan. I needed to add a “Venue” control account, which contains my missing scope.

  • You can easily add to or modify the WBS as it evolves. We can pass the WBS for the festival’s grand opening to festival operation to festival closing.

If we had used process-oriented elements, this evolution would be much more difficult. Whereas booking entertainers only occurs before the grand opening, music and its work packages can be used to track booking entertainers, stage construction, stage deconstruction, setting up lighting equipment, taking down lighting equipment, etc. One WBS can be used across all the phases of the festival to track work, costs, and performance.

  • Product-orientation provides natural summary points for different management levels.

Cost, schedule, and technical data can be summed up from the work package level, to the control account level, to the project level, and finally to the total program level. This process of “rolling up” gives management different details about the status of the work. Leslie Knope wants to know all of the details for each control account. Assistant City Manager Ben Wyatt wants to know about the status for each of the projects. City Manager Chris Traeger isn’t interested in all the details but wants to know the status of the festival itself, the program level.

  • Products tie directly to the resource-loaded schedule and show clear responsibility assignments.

What entertainers do we need, and who is available? We can tie our resources and schedule to the products – Freddy Spaghetti performs children’s music, Mouse Rat covers rock music, and Duke Silver takes the stage for jazz music.

  • You can identify risks more easily.

If Freddy Spaghetti is unavailable, we know we can substitute Johnny Karate to cover Children’s Music Entertainment and ensure the overall festival is a success, even for our youngest guests.

  • Product-orientation improves cost estimating by using goods and services rather than processes.

Have you ever tried to estimate an action or process like entertaining festival guests? How much does that cost? Well, I don’t know, but I probably do know the cost of animal feed and booking Li’l Sebastian as a special guest. We can estimate costs for each of these work packages and perform our roll-up to estimate the cost of entertainment.

Are we on schedule? Are we on budget? How much work is left to get music for the festival? It can be easier to determine how close a product is to completion than it is for a process.

Many of the “products” in this WBS may be considered services, which you may not realize are deliverables. Services may not be physical products, but they are work that is executed and delivered to the customer. This shows how the concept of a product-oriented WBS applies across every industry, whether for construction, manufacturing, or even research and analysis.

Have you experienced the benefits of product-oriented WBS? Discuss your good or bad WBS experiences in the comments below or share via LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.

For best practices and more information on WBS, remember to check out the PMBOK® and the Department of Defense Standard Practice, MIL-STD-881C.

1 Daniels, G., Schur, M., & Goor, D. (Writers), & Holland, D. (Director). (2011, March 17). Harvest festival [Television episode]. In Parks and recreation. New York City, NY:National Broadcasting Company.