SMEs and Criteria for Your WBS Estimating Threshold

In this post by TenStep, two criteria - understanding the work and your ability to manage the work effectively - are discussed for creating the Work Breakdown Schedule (WBS) to the appropriate level of detail and work.

There are multiple reasons, or criteria, for guiding the breakdown of work. In the post below, two keys to the process are highlighted. The first is "understanding the work", which makes a lot of sense, as both you and the person executing the work need to have a firm understanding of the task. The second, your ability to manage the work effectively, also makes a lot of sense, as the work must not only be understandable but "trackable" - that is, able to be tracked in a logical fashion. Work that is broken down into an unwieldy chunk will be difficult to track.

Another key point, not mentioned below, for guiding estimating threshold is finding the ideal task size and content so that you can easily group and delegate work packages to the individuals with the appropriate skills. In a software development task, for example, it may take a little understanding of software to do this, but the task of managing and accessing the data should be separated from that of programming a set of steps which includes accessing that data, as the skill sets are different. You may need a database expert, possible with the particular database technology you are using, for the former task. Likewise, you may need a programming expert, probably even in a particular programming language, for the second task.

TenStep's Method123 templates blog, reproduced for you below, provides some insight into determining your estimating threshold. You can find related templates to help you manage your WBS as you apply the estimating threshold at

Here's the TenStep "Use Two Criteria to Determine Your Estimating Threshold" post:

When you create a schedule you generally don’t know enough to enter all of the detailed activities the first time though. Instead, you identify large chunks of work first, and then break the larger chunks into smaller pieces. These smaller pieces are, in turn, broken down into still smaller and more discrete activities. This technique is referred to as creating a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

How small should the activities be before they do not need to be broken down further? This is referred to as your “estimating threshold”. For example, if your estimating threshold was 80 hours, you would continue to break the work into smaller entities until all work was less than 80 hours. No work would be left at a higher level.

You can use the following criteria as a guide. For a typical large project (say 5000 effort hours or more), any work that is greater than 80 hours of effort should be broken down into smaller pieces. Medium-sized projects (say 1000 effort hours) should have activities no larger than 40 hours. If the project is small (say 200 hours), you should break down the activities into work no greater than 20 hours. Remember that this threshold is an upper limit. You can break the activities down further if you want.

There are two criteria for determining the threshold.

  1. Better understanding the work.If you leave schedule activities at too high a level it may not be clear what is required to complete the work. You need to make sure the work is discreet enough that it is understandable and it is clear what is required to complete it. For example, if you assign someone an activity that is 240 hours, there may be a lot of work to do for completion, and it may be confusing. If you assign four activities of 60 hours each (or 6 activities of 40 hours each) it should be more clear what is expected for each piece of work.
  2. Better able to manage the work. When you assign work to a team member you don’t know for sure how he is progressing until the due date (or the completion date if it comes first). For instance, if you assign a team member a piece of work that is due in eight weeks, you are not going to know for sure whether the work is on time until the eight-week deadline. Until that time you can just approximate if it appears things are on schedule. However, eight weeks (or longer) is too long to wait to know for sure if the work is on track. A better approach is to break the eight-week activity into four two-week activities. Then you will know after two weeks if the work is progressing on time or not.

It is possible that activities that are to be worked on in the distant future may not be able to be broken down less than the threshold because there may be too much that is unknown about the work itself. The future work can be left at a level higher than the threshold. However, if you leave future work at a high-level, it is still critical to break the work into smaller pieces at least two to three months before you need to start executing the work.

These two factors – understanding the work and your ability to manage the work effectively - should drive your decision on how small to make your activities.

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