Project Management – Project Timelines vs. Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)


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In project management, timelines and schedules are often referred to in different ways and have different levels of detail. Understanding and deploying each of these versions of the same project schedule will help align different teams while preventing information overload to those who do not need it.

High-level timline

Starting at the top, a high-level timeline is going to describe your scheduled events at a consolidated level and group similar tasks. Timing will often only show the start of the very first task and the end of the very last task in these groups.

Some examples of high-level timelines may include “Discovery,” “Requirements,”  “Development,”  “Testing,” and  “Launch.” These areas are all bucketed concept areas that can be plotted based on expert knowledge and the types of work that the organization normally performs.

Detailed timeline

A detailed timeline will go one step further than the examples in a high-level timeline. This one additional layer of information is normally enough for functional areas or partners to understand where they will be contributing in each of the processes.

For a few examples, “Discovery” may include the actual workshops lined up for each week. “Development” may be broken down into each of the agile sprint deliveries, and “Testing” may be broken down to Quality Assurance Testing and User Acceptance Testing.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

The lowest level of detail is called a “work breakdown structure.” A WBS will go into each and every area and break them down into the smallest unit of work that can be done in a day. The goal of a work breakdown structure is not to specifically go through each of the individual steps to accomplish the work, but to work through enough information so tasks can be viewed in relation to what has to happen prior and subsequent to the tasks. This process also directly correlates to creating and understanding the critical path of the project.

An example of a work breakdown structure could be development sprints broken down into each area of work that will be completed in those sprints. It will show how each of those tasks relate to each other, the amount of time they will take, and who will be responsible for completing the work.

Additional timeline helpers

Milestones are the major events in a project that signify a larger group or a significant group of work has been completed. They are goals that a majority of the teams are working towards.

Critical path, or the tasks from the WBS moved or not completed, directly affect the completion of the project on the expected due date. 

Blackout dates are areas of the timeline where work is not expected to be completed. While some work may get done during these periods, they are generally thought of as bonus time in helping the project get completed sooner, but should not contribute to a later due date.

Example – Baking a Cake:

Highlevel Time

  1. Acquire ingredients 
  2. Schedule staff
  3. Bake cake
  4. Sell or deliver cake
  5. Not open Sunday

Detailed Timeline:

  1. Acquire ingredients 
    1. Wet ingredients
    2. Dry ingredients
  2. Schedule staff
    1. Back of house staff
    2. Front of house staff
  3. Bake cake
    1. Bake prep
    2. Bake cake
    3. Decorate cake
  4. Sell or deliver cake
    1. Open shop
    2. Present cake
    3. Sell cake

WBS Timeline:

  1. Acquire ingredients – 7 days
    1. Wet ingredients – 4 days, Mike 
      1. Eggs – 1 day, Mike 
      2. Milk – 1 day, Mike 
      3. Vanilla – 1 day, Mike 
      4. Butter – 1 day, Mike 
    2. Dry ingredients – 3 days
      1. Flour – 1 day, Sue 
      2. Baking powder – 1 day, Sue 
      3. Salt – 1 day, Sue 
  2. Schedule staff – 6 days
    1. Back of house staff – 2 days
      1. Head chef  – 1 day, Alex
      2. Pastry chef  – 1 day, Alex
    2. Front of house staff – 2 days
      1. Shop manager  – 1 day, Alex
      2. Shop associate  – 1 day, Alex
    3. Housekeeping and maintenance – 2 days, Alex
      1. Fix stove – 1 day, Janet
      2. Clean kitchen – 1 day, Steve
  3. Bake cake – 160 min
    1. Preheat oven – 20 min, Mike
    2. Prepare baking pan/sheet – 5 min, Mike
    3. Combine dry ingredients – 5 min, Mike
    4. Add wet ingredients – 20 min, Mike
    5. Cake in oven – 30 min, Mike
    6. Cool cake – 60 min, Mike 
    7. Decorate Cake – 20 min, Mike
  4. Sell or deliver cake – 60 min
    1. Open shop  – 20 min, Alex
    2. Arrange bakery case with new item – 20 min, Pablo
    3. Slice cake – 5 min, Pablo
    4. Package cake – 5 min, Pablo
    5. Checkout at point of sale – 10 min, Pablo
  5. Not open Sunday – 1 day, all staff

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