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Organizing a Task or Project

In talking with people in management, some of the most difficult things to accomplish are surprisingly not the big projects, but in many cases the smaller tasks. When you come out of management meetings, the larger projects usually have lots of resources, energy, focus, and managerial visibility associated with them. Larger projects typically are split into smaller subtasks that have individual work assignments associated with them. With so much focus on the large tasks, it is actually easier to get momentum going and for completion to be realized (lots of power). With the smaller tasks or projects there is less discussion about them in the initial meetings, few people are assigned to the project, and there is almost no focus or energy associated with them. They are not subdivided into smaller components, and getting traction and momentum going is difficult, leaving completion far from easy if it’s even realized at all (no power).

One of the problems with initially structuring a project relates to going into enough detail on the tasks to cover all the items that will need to be completed. If this data is not accurate, the manager is starting off with incomplete information about the project that can result in inaccurate schedule or cost information. There are several benefits to breaking down tasks or projects into smaller parts:

  • Creates an outline form of the task or product to better view all work required.
  • Breaks up the project into major components or steps.
  • Makes it easier to define each step and breaks steps into smaller work packages.
  • Reduces the chance of forgetting required steps.
  • Makes it easier to communicate the work to the project team.
  • Creates a better resource scheduling tool.
  • Enables the project to run more efficiently.
  • Allows the manager to have better problem and risk management.
  • Enables the manager to more accurately report the status.

When projects are broken up into smaller components, resources are likely to view their part as a smaller, easier task to complete than if they see their part listed as a single large item taking a long time to complete. Part of the power in this tool stems from the perception the resource has of his work. This can be a perception of his regular duty or of an additional task he volunteered for. In many cases the title of Manager or Director can be daunting due to the responsibility involved, but in reality it is just a bunch of smaller jobs that make up that title. How a resource views what he is required to do can play a big role in his perception of a workload. Breaking up projects or tasks into smaller parts allows the resource to see that it might be much easier to complete a large item than originally thought. This can be equally beneficial for the manager. This is also how project managers view a project and how they communicate the tasks, as just small parts that each resource needs to focus on.

Managers are more successful when they have a sense of organization and control over tasks being worked on in their department. Managers should look for ways to make their department run more efficiently and should have more details on what resources are doing, allowing the manager more information to consider alternatives. When managers have the ability to actually manage and control the work performed in their department, they feel better about their job. People working on a project or working in that department can see that the manager is organized, has a sense of vision and direction as to the work being performed, and knows what the end goal is leading up to.

This also promotes accountability within the department or team as resources can see more details about what is required and when.

One tool used in project management that the operations manager can use to better organize a department is a work breakdown structure, or WBS, as shown in Table 1.1.

This structure can be built using Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Project. The work breakdown structure is used to subdivide work into smaller tasks. You can continue to break down these subtasks as far as you need to go until you get to what’s called the work package. This helps the manager organize tasks in sequence and reveals which subtasks need to be completed before others can start, which is called the predecessor. Predecessors help the manager understand the flow of work and sequence of tasks. This also helps the manager understand, from an accountability standpoint, who will need to complete their work before other work can start.

The manager can also use this work breakdown structure to assign resources to tasks, smaller subtasks, and work packages. The manager can use these resource assignments for those overseeing a task or the people actually doing the task. Other things can be assigned in the work breakdown structure, such as costs for resources and materials, start and stop times that define the timeframe in which a task will need to be completed, and quality checkpoints. This tool can be used for projects or general organization of a department that has several components of work that need to be scheduled in sequence.

Table 1.1. Work Breakdown Structure Illustrated in Microsoft Excel

Task

WBS Code

Project Tasks

Durations

Predecessor

Resources

1

1

Project Name

33 Days Total

2

1.1

First Subtask

14 Days Subtotal

3

1.1.1

Lower Divided Subtask or Work Package

2 Days

Name

4

1.1.2

Lower Divided Subtask or Work Package

7 Days

Name

5

1.1.2.1

Lowest-Level Work Package

4 Days

3

Name

6

1.1.2.2

Lowest-Level Work Package

5

Name

7

1.1.3

Lower Divided Subtask or Work Package

5 Days

6

Name

8

1.2

Second Subtask

8 Days Subtotal

9

1.2.1

Lower Divided Subtask or Work Package

5 Days

7

Name

10

1.2.2

Lower Divided Subtask or Work Package

3 Days

9

Name

11

1.3

Third Subtask

11 Days Subtotal

12

1.3.1

Lower Divided Subtask or Work Package

7 Days

10

Name

13

1.3.2

Lower Divided Subtask or Work Package

4 Days

12

Name

The work breakdown structure can help the manager not only see information relative to tasks and resources, but also better organize and plan for resources that will be used later on the project. The manager might also want to use a WBS to help capture all the tasks that need to be done on a large project. When large projects are first organized, it can be difficult to understand everything that needs to be completed because there might be a large amount of work to be done or it might span a long duration of time. Starting off with main subdivided parts of the project can act as an information repository that can be further organized to define the work that needs to be completed. In most cases further refinement is in allocation of resources.

One area of concern in operations management is resource management. Resources can be in the form of facilities, capital equipment, cash or lines of credit, IT and communications systems, and human resources. In the work breakdown structure, the manager can assign not only human resources to tasks, but also other resources that might be required to complete a project. This is critical for efficiency within the organization because most companies do not have an unlimited supply of resources and an organized scheduling structure. Some resources needed by a manager might be critical, such as a line of credit, expensive equipment, corporate aircraft, or resources used by an outside company or contractor. These types of resources require special care and in some cases require contracts to be written that will define the scope of what is needed by the resource. Financial resources can be small and easily managed within the department or they can be very large, requiring a line of credit or a significant amount of the company’s financial resources. This is when the manager could use a work breakdown structure to help other managers like financial managers understand when critical pieces of finances need to be used on a project.

One thing midlevel managers might not be aware of is the amount of cash flow required by a company. Cash flow is typically used for such things as salaries, materials, equipment, and running the operation, but when a special task or project is underway, extra financial resources might be required to complete critical things on a project or areas of the operation. Using a WBS works well with coordinating tasks on a project or cost-sensitive areas of the operation with the financial department to not only plan cash flow but also coordinate with all the departments in the organization. This is done differently at various levels of management and responsibility.

If the manager has responsibility over a single department, overseeing special projects within that department might be more simplified. In this case, the manager is generally more focused on the people and details of tasks being done. Another level might be the operations manager in charge of several departments or facilities. This level of management requires a more organizational approach and tools like a work breakdown structure to help with identification and the sequence of processes or defining of special projects. It will be important to coordinate resources used on normal departmental activities and those on special projects. This type of tool brings organization, definition, logistics, resources, and accountability all together and makes them all visible in one single tool and increases your power as a manager in completing tasks.

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