Systems Engineering and Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

What is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)?
The work breakdown structure (WBS) is an important tool used by program managers and systems engineers. As NASA says in their Work Breakdown Structure Handbook, “A WBS is a product-oriented family tree that identifies the hardware, software, services, and all other deliverables required to achieve an end project objective [1].” They go on to describe how the purpose of the WBS is to subdivide the work on a project in segments that can be used for planning, cost control, and technical effort. This means that it is important for the systems engineer to understand the WBS and how to use it effectively.

INCOSE is very clear about the importance and role of systems engineering relative to the WBS. In the INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook, the guidance is that, “Creation of the WBS is an activity where SE and project management intersect [2].” That intersection means the SE will work with program management in creation of the WBS. Sometimes this may mean a supportive role, and other times it may mean an active leadership role depending on the project and program manager.

What Responsibiities Does The Systems Engineering Have Relative To The Project WBS?
The systems engineer has the responsibility for developing the Systems Engineering tasks portion of the WBS. This includes all the engineering activity required to guide the product development through its full life cycle. However, this is not the only part that the systems engineer plays in the definition of the WBS [3].

The systems engineer should also support the program manager in the structure of the WBS. In particular, the systems engineer should help structure the WBS so that “every task is identified at the appropriate place within the WBS hierarchy [4].” In other words, the systems engineer should help develop the WBS to make sure that all tasks are captured and that they are in the correct place within the structure of the WBS.

[1] NASA Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) Handbook, NASA/SP-2010-3404, January 2010.
[2] INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook V3.2, International Council on Systems Engineering, INCOSE-TP-2003-002-03.2, January, 2010, p. 181.
[3] A. Kossiakoff, et. al., Systems Engineering: Principles and Practice (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011): 116.
[4] A. Kossiakoff, et. al., Systems Engineering, p.116.

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