The WBS and Preliminary Project Planning

Project Workflow Management



By Dan Epstein

New York, USA




This is the second article in the series on Project Workflow Management. The first article describes an overall Project Planning Process for developing plans for executing and controlling all project groups of processes called frames and detailed processes within each frame. The described here process is one of twelve detailed processes within the high level Project Planning process.

This article is based on the book Project Workflow Management: A Business Process Approach by Dan Epstein and Rich Maltzman, published by J Ross Publishing in 2014. The book describes PM Workflow® framework, the step-by-step workflow guiding approach using project management methods, practical techniques, examples, tools, templates, checklists and tips, teaching readers the detailed and necessary knowledge required to manage project “hands-on” from scratch, instructing what to do, when to do and how to do it up to delivering the completed and tested product or service to your client.

The project workflow framework is the result of the author’s research into the subject, having the following objectives:

  • Create a virtually error-free project management environment to ensure significant reduction of project costs
  • Reduce demands for highly qualified project managers using the step-by-step workflow guiding approach.

While PM Workflow® is the continuous multi-threaded process, where all PM processes are integrated together, this article will attempt to describe the Preliminary Project Planning  as a stand-alone  process that can be used independently outside of PM Workflow® framework. It will be difficult in this article not to venture into processes outside of the scope of this article, such as planning, quality, communications and other management processes, so they will be just mentioned. However, to get full benefit and the error free project management environment, the complete implementation of PM Workflow® is required.

In order to understand how PM Workflow® ensures this environment, I strongly recommend reading my article Project Workflow Framework – An Error Free Project Management Environment in the PMI affiliated projectmanagement.com (https://www.projectmanagement.com/articles/330037/Project-Workflow-Framework–An-Error-Free-Project-Management-Environment)

The article above provides the overview and explanation of how the project workflow framework works and achieves the established objectives.

For more information, please visit my website www.pm-workflow.com


The purpose of the Work Breakdown Structure is to establish plans and methods for implementing and managing projects. The WBS in the context of this book is a tool for developing or updating the schedule data, such as milestones, deliverables, dependencies, risks, work products and resource requirements. Changes to the project scope any time throughout the project will bring the project flow back to this process. The WBS is a foundation upon which task estimates, task dependencies, resource allocation, risk management, quality management and project planning build into the project schedule.

WBS Activity Decomposition

The WBS is a deliverable-oriented multilevel decomposition of the entire project scope into sets of smaller, more manageable and controllable tasks. The WBS is, in effect, a hierarchical tree, which may be presented in several different forms:

  • WBS Decomposition Diagram (hierarchical)
  • Gantt Chart (adds element of time)
  • Network Diagram (focused on sequencing and dependencies)

WBS decomposition rules are different from process decomposition rules, which were described in the Requirements Frame section of the book. Instead of decomposing high level business activities to elementary business activities during the process decomposition, WBS activities are decomposed down to the level of the smallest executable project elements with the identified deliverables, called a task. Deliverables do not have to be a client deliverable; they may be an intermediate deliverables, which are required to create a client deliverable. There are two important rules of WBS decompositions:

  • No task should be longer than 40 hours (since any larger would indicate that further decomposition is possible)
  • No task should be shorter than 16 hours (since this could cause an excessive number of small tasks to track).

The 40 hour rule allows the project manager to have better control over the project. Experienced project managers know, when they ask team members about status of not yet completed tasks, the answer is often 80% or 90% completion. Unfortunately, the remaining 10% takes three times longer than the previous 90%. In fact, it is impossible to know the real status of the task until it is 100% complete and the deliverable is available for review. Therefore, the worst delay in task completion that may happen in this case is 40 hours, after which the corrective measures can be taken. If the task is eight weeks long, it will become obvious eight weeks down the road that the task is far from completion.

The correctly designed WBS of the medium size project has between several hundreds and one thousand tasks. If many tasks are shorter than 16 hours, then the WBS of the same project may have many thousands of tasks, which makes the project less manageable. There is an exception for mini projects with duration of several days or weeks, which may have shorter tasks. WBS creation should involve working sessions with all key technical personnel.

A Decomposition Diagram for a children’s birthday party is presented in Fig 7-1. The diagram is just a sample and many essential tasks are not included for the sake of keeping it simple. All activities and tasks are shown as rectangles. The top level activity Children’s Birthday Party is decomposed into four activities:


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How to cite this paper: Epstein, D. (2018). The WBS and Preliminary Project Planning,  PM World Journal, Volume VII, Issue VI – June.  Available online at https://pmworldjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/pmwj71-Jun2018-Epstein-project-workflow-series-article-2-wbs.pdf

Editor’s note: This series of articles is based on the book Project Workflow Management: A Business Process Approach by Dan Epstein and Rich Maltzman, published by J Ross Publishing in 2014. The book describes the PM Workflow® framework, a step-by-step approach using project management methods, practical techniques, examples, tools, templates, checklists and tips.  The book teaches readers how to manage a project “hands-on” from scratch, including what to do, when and how to do it up to delivering a completed and tested product or service to a client.

About the Author

Dan Epstein

New York, USA


Dan Epstein
combines over 25 years of experience in the project management field and the best practices area, working for several major Canadian and U.S. corporations, as well as 4 years teaching university students project management and several software engineering subjects. He received a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the LITMO University in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg, Russia), was certified as a Professional Engineer in 1983 by the Canadian Association of Professional Engineers – Ontario, and earned a master’s certificate in project management from George Washington University in 2000 and the Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI®) in 2001.

Throughout his career, Dan managed multiple complex interdependent projects and programs, traveling extensively worldwide. He possesses multi-industry business analysis, process reengineering, best practices, professional training development and technical background in a wide array of technologies. In 2004 Dan was a keynote speaker and educator at the PMI-sponsored International Project Management Symposium in Central Asia. He published several articles and gave published interviews on several occasions. In the summer of 2008 he published “Methodology for Project Managers Education” in a university journal. His book, Project Workflow Management – The Business Process Approach, written in cooperation with Rich Maltzman, was published in 2014 by J. Ross Publishing.

Dan first started development of the Project Management Workflow in 2003, and it was used in a project management training course. Later this early version of the methodology was used for teaching project management classes at universities in the 2003–2005 school years. Later on, working in the best practices area, the author entertained the idea of presenting project management as a single multithreaded business workflow. In 2007–2008 the idea was further refined when teaching the project management class at a university.

Dan is an author of many publications in professional magazines, speaker at the international presentations, a guest at podcasts, etc. The Project Management Institute’s (PMI) assessment of his book says: “Contains a holistic learning environment so that after finishing the book and assignments, new project managers or students will possess enough knowledge to confidently manage small to medium projects”. The full list of his publications and appearances can be found at the website www.pm-workflow.com in the Publications tab.

Dan can be contacted at [email protected].

To see other works by Dan Epstein, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/dan-epstein/