Work packages serve to reduce the complexity of large-scale projects. In order to structure the dimensions of a project and make them manageable, it is absolutely necessary to create a project structure plan. The individual subtasks in the work breakdown structure are called work packages.
The Initial Situation
With the help of the Work Breakdown Structure, a project becomes clear and editable, but this usually contains only the meta information of the tasks to be completed: Who does what by when.
That’s where it starts: The description of the „WHAT“ is usually dismissed with a few words in the work package name – it has to be, otherwise the Work Breakdown Structure would become several A4 pages long, which absolutely does not correspond to its actual objective – namely that of clarity. For this reason, a more detailed description of this „WHAT“ is required, preferably including the expected result. This is done – as the name suggests – by creating the work package description.
The work package description
The work package description is the logical continuation of the work breakdown structure. In the work breakdown structure (WBS), the WBS code, name, dates, responsibility and progress of the work packages are defined and displayed. The task of the work package description is to define exactly which measures are to be taken in the course of processing the work package and what the final result of the work package should be.
Basically, any important information can be defined as content of the work package description, such as risk assessment, personnel and budget resources, materials, equipment, infrastructure. The actual content of the work package description has to be redefined from project to project and depends on some essential characteristics (size, complexity, team composition, experience of the team, etc.).
While the name of a work package should already be chosen to provide information about what will happen in the work package, the description will reinforce this and ensure that everyone is talking about the same content and, more importantly, the same outcome. Through the definition and written documentation of goals and non-goals of the work package, the individual work packages are separated from each other. This prevents sentences like „We thought you were doing this in your work package“ from becoming loud during the course of the project.
Objectives of the work package description
- Definition and clarification of the necessary detail tasks
- Assignment of responsibilities in the project
- Scheduling at work package level (start & finish date, lead time)
- Identification and use of synergies and redundancies
- Creation of a basis for performance & deadline controlling
- Creation of transparency and orientation in the project team during project work
The work package description makes it even clearer what needs to be done to achieve the project objective!
The way to work package description
Basis is the work breakdown structure plan
The work package descriptions are created on the basis of the project structure plan. As a rule, it is the responsibility of the person responsible for the work package in question, since he or she, as a technical expert for the respective topic, knows best what has to happen in his or her work package. He is also responsible for the quality of the results.
Coordination of the work package drafts
If all work package descriptions are created in a first draft, the vote follows. This prevents things from being planned twice or forgotten. This is best done in a workshop in which the work package managers sit at a table and the work package descriptions go through and optimise each other point by point.
From experience, this approach is more efficient than sending the individual work package descriptions in a circular flow and then merging the comments. Such comments rarely conform and can hardly ever be incorporated immediately without further coordination. This procedure also promotes the mutual comparison of images and creates a common understanding of the overall project.
When the work package descriptions are compared together, content and results as well as deadlines and resources are coordinated. The coordination of so-called „bottleneck resources“ is essential, such as employees who are planned in several work packages, which may also be processed at the same time.
Work package descriptions supplement the Work Breakdown Structure
If all project participants are satisfied with the result, the work package descriptions are filed together with the project structure plan and revised during the course of the project if necessary. If a work package is included in the work breakdown structure during project work, a new work package description must of course be created.
The same applies if work packages are merged or deleted – the work package descriptions reflect the project structure plan in a more detailed form and must therefore always be up to date.
Three steps to work package description
1. Derive work package responsibilities from the project structure plan
As a rule, a technical expert on the topic of the work package is nominated. In large projects, however, this is often also a person who is more dedicated to management tasks and coordinates the technical experts.
2. Describe work packages with regard to goals, contents and results
The description of the work packages is carried out by the respective work package manager, who also involves other project team members if required. As a rule, this is a technical expert on the content of the work package.
3. Content-related coordination of the work package descriptions
In a specially planned meeting or workshop, the individual work package descriptions are read crosswise by the project team and the content is coordinated. An efficient way to do this is, for example, a work package vernissage.
- Review of the planned start & end date from the project structure plan
- Cost estimation of the required resources per work package by the work package managers
- Coordination of the proposed dates & resources in the project team
- Joint check whether all relevant content has been taken into account in sufficient form and quality
Example work package description
Ideally, the work package description should be displayed in a structured table. The content of the work package description is variable, but the minimum components are as follows
- the WBS code
- the name to uniquely assign the work package to the work breakdown structure.
- the work package responsibility
- as well as content and result of the work package
where the last two pieces of information are the main part of the work package description as they are not covered by the work breakdown structure.
Example work package description – detailed variant
Example work package description – simple variant
Work package description as an annoying duty?
The creation of work package descriptions is perceived by most project staff as a cumbersome administrative hurdle for the project manager. However, there are two main aspects which in any case speak in favour of specifying the work packages.
- The work package description serves the project manager as a basis for operational management and project controlling. This is particularly important for large-scale projects, where it is essential that the project manager concentrates fully on the management of the project and cannot take on any content tasks.
- If the project team members have not yet often worked together and the project team is therefore not yet well-rehearsed, the structure defined in the work package description supports the jointly coordinated approach in the project.
Practical tips from the field
- It is advisable to always describe all work packages, as this is the only way to make the entire project task transparent. The time required for this is kept within limits and is in any case in relation to the benefits.
- If the work packages are described „cleanly“ (continuously and completely), they are the ideal basis for controlling, as progress can be optimally estimated on the basis of them.
- Work package descriptions can be discussed and agreed jointly in the project team, e.g. in vernissage form – this gives all team members an overview and can improve the result with their additions.
- There can only be one work package manager at a time.
- Detailed planning is a must for complex projects.