Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) for Tradespeople

Andre & Erich


A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a simple visual hierarchy of deliverables and their component parts. It uses a tree structure to breakdown the complex whole into simpler pieces. When done well, the components are grouped based on their interactions to minimize boundary friction. For example, this simplified WBS for building a house is broken down based on the trades involved:

The WBS is useful for identifying gaps in the overall project scope by representing all the specifics of an individual project and is a critical input for a comprehensively scoped schedule. By creating a WBS, a project manager has a layer of hardness within his control and the schedule can now be permitted to shear in response to operational needs.

Construction executives and project managers frequently abandon WBS for the illusory hardness of a predictable project schedule. They invest their preconstruction efforts and the project’s success in ambiguous contextual details. Without a clear understanding of the project scope, chaos ensues, usually in the form of change orders, project delays, backcharges, and field disorganization.

In contrast, tradespeople are intimately familiar with the safe assumptions of their work. They are known for completing projects (or deliverables of projects) every time they pour a foundation, build a wall, or paint a room. They also dislike working on disorganized projects.

The Work Breakdown Structure is a trusted practice in the Project Management community. By repackaging the tool from an abstract concept hidden in textbooks and industry literature to a simplified hardness-creating protocol in a tradesperson’s toolbox, tradespeople will receive a learnable, legible, and ludic protocol to revive the joys of their craft through the control of their work.

As a bonus, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners has offered their apprenticeship program to test the simplified protocol. Through this partnership, we will not only learn the principles of protocol revitalization and simplification, but we will also create an institutional opportunity for continued protocol research.

What is the existing target protocol you are hoping to improve or enhance?

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) protocol as described in the Project Management Institutes (PMI): Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).

What is the core idea or insight about potential improvement you want to pursue?

By simplifying the protocol to trade specific essential, we will improve its legibility and make it easier to learn. By testing its improvement, we will make its use defensible to management. Through a training program, we will revive the tradespeople’s joy in controlling their work.

What is your discovery methodology for investigating the current state of the target protocol?

Personal experience, interviews with construction industry personnel, and literature review.

In what form will you prototype your improvement idea?

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners has offered to conduct A/B testing through its standardized full-sized mock-ups built by their apprenticeship programs. With these mock-ups, we can measure the cost/time savings of a trained group vs a control group while minimizing the confounders of skill, team dynamics, weather, and product complexity.

How will you field-test your improvement idea?

The apprentice programs will continue to provide A/B testing groups to evaluate cost/time savings.

In-the-field tradespeople, foremen, and supervisors will receive individual on-site training or be group training through workshops. They will be interviewed to determine protocol use and to evaluate improved organization, lower risks, and increased legibility to management.

Who will be able to judge the quality of your output?

Thanks to the success metrics of cost/time savings, non-experts will be able to judge the quality of our output.

In addition, the following industry experts have volunteered to judge the value of delegated organizational effort, improved risk controls, and reduced management oversight created by our subjective criteria:

Chris Simpson - Brigil Construction;
Ian Manhire - Latcon Concrete;
Jon Baron - United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America

How will you publish and evangelize your improvement idea?

The creation of a train-the-trainer program, a 3-4 hours classroom-based WBS module, and a 30-minute mini-course for in-the-field training.

To broaden the interest in the training, we’ll share our results with the construction industry through industry publications, business groups, and trade unions; to impact future research, we’ll submit our findings to the Project Management Institute (PMI) to be considered as input into the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)

What is the success vision for your idea?

Short-term success: Requests for the new training module.

Long-term success: Attending construction meetings where the tradespeople discuss issues with the WBS before discussing schedules. (Ideally, the project managers leading these projects will see the benefits of this system and join the bandwagon.)

Big-picture success: Providing an analogy for blockchain research using the project management standards as a metaphor for a reliable blockchain and the simplified WBS as an example of an adaptable external protocol.


It would be useful to hear more in the pitch about what WBS is, and what benefits it offers over existing forms of scheduling which contractors already develop for their projects. From what I’ve seen while working in architecture, a lot of times construction scheduling (at least on smaller projects; the largest I’ve worked on was a 7-story building) can at least appear to be significantly constrained by external factors like lead times for ordering materials, weather conditions and the availability of subcontractors; how much room is there to improve it?

With your line “By having worked closely with construction managers from various local companies and by offering to train their workers on the new protocol, there should be a pool of suitable candidates to judges our output” are you indicating that you have existing construction industry experience which is informing your proposal, or are you expressing a plan to work with those people in the future?

Also, are white papers and/or courses which need “design” really the best way to share your ideas? My offhand guess would be that maybe some kinds of articles in trade publications or workshop events/trade show presentations demonstrating the real-world results of the practices would be more effective than a publication which sounds like it conveys an abstract top-down plan, and you might not need to worry about as many formalities or do as much preparation work before starting to present small pieces of your early-stage findings on the way to developing a broader document.


This is great. I’d be interested in understanding how to measure the success of the field tests of the new protocol in addition to the “Who will be able to judge the quality of your output” section. Task quality indicators identified through observations or harder metrics such as time-saved by wide adoption of the WBS protocols could be used.

As someone who has commercialized a skill development platform within the last 24 months I could help you in the design and the field testing strategy. :grin:

Thanks for the comments. They really forced me to dig deep into the subject and prompted a RFC re-write. With your background in architecture, I’d be interested in your opinion of the revision.

While it’s still present, constraining the size of the training module to a workshop sized course was a great suggestion. A formal course feels necessary to promote the long term use of the protocol, but by keeping it short, protocol accessibility will be improved.

Great comment. I rewrote the judging section to address some of the observations.

Since this protocol’s success creates the absence of friction, I am finding it hard to assign hard metrics to measure its success. The easiest metrics, time & cost, will be affected be confounders such as good scheduling, a motivated workforce, or good weather.

Interviews/surveys can approximate the absence of friction through questions focusing on “ease of use”, but this is measurement is fairly subjective for a quality indicator.

Any suggestion on how to resolve this issue?

From a quick glance, it seems like the description of WBS is now overly long and uses some references unrelated to your topic (ie the cooking references when you’re really talking about construction). I don’t see why clarifying that term has to take up more than a sentence. It also seems like a problem for the application to not be leading with its overall point or the project’s benefits for people funding it.

I can see why you chose construction as it an industry ready for disruption. Efficiencies are important and change is difficult unless metrics like time and money can be validated. It looks like you have seen success with project managers. Perhaps the protocols could also be in training programs and roll outs of new/changes to building codes.

I hadn’t thought about making changes to building codes. It’s a good suggestion. It also made me think about modifying standard form contracts.

We’ll definitely look at this once we figure out where to start; we’d be happy to hear suggestions.

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Andre - interesting project and seems like it could be quite valuable. I will echo Chenoe’s feedback that my immediate question was wanting to understand more what WBS is and why it’s better (the kitchen example was helpful but slightly more detail might also help). If I had a better grasp of that it would clarify what follows in the project description. But again, it definitely seems like a domain where improved protocols could make a meaningful difference, with opportunities to implement it at smaller scales and then expand from there.

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