Work Package vs. Activity: Concept, Differences, Examples


Work Package vs. Activity

It can be quite challenging to differentiate work package and activities based on their outside definition. It even becomes harder since these two words are commonly used to define scheduled tasks to be performed in a given project.

Most people also use them interchangeably, giving away the notion that they are similar. However, work package and activity have different meanings and should not be used as synonyms. In this article, we look at the concepts, differences, and examples of these two to help you have a clear understanding of what they are.

We will first discuss them separately before delving into their differences. Let’s get started!

Work Package

A work package is regarded as the lowest component in the Work Breakdown Structure, popularly known as WBS. Most people refer to it as the terminal element of the WBS and is usually arrived at by breaking down a deliverable into smaller components.

To understand this better, we need to ask ourselves what the Work Breakdown Structure is. WBS is a hierarchical breakdown of all the tasks to be done by the project team to realize the project objectives and create the deliverables.

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It is usually broken down into three levels, with the work package at the lowest. Each of these levels is numbered to ensure that the represented work can be identified and tracked easily using different geographical representations as the project progresses.

When you reach a point where you cannot break down a deliverable further, you get the work package. This helps you understand different aspects of the project, such as the cost and duration, all needed for smooth project management.

Even though we will discuss this intensely as we go on with our article, you need to understand that you arrive at the activities that generally make the mini-projects by breaking down the work package. The work package should always focus on the outcome, product, and deliverable and not on the activities that form it.

To reach the work package, the WBS must be broken down to a level where one can estimate the project’s cost and duration.

Benefits of Work Packages in Project Management

Remember, work packages are generally arrived at after breaking down your project. Even though this may seem like a huge role, it helps you manage your project better. Work packages, which are obtained after the WBS is broken down, serve the following purposes:



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  • Helps in Easier Cost Estimation

Cost estimation is one of the most critical steps in project planning. The stakeholders and project manager must forecast the intended expenses to come up with a proper budget. The work package breaks down the project into its most diminutive form, which allows you to estimate costs easily.

You can also easily determine the time, staffing, and materials for proper planning, an essential part of project management.

  • Shows interdependencies

You can easily and clearly see the tasks that are dependent on others upon identifying the work packages. This would help you properly plan and in overall project management, which could not have been possible if the WBS was left as it was.

  • Allows you more control of the project

It is easier to manage something when it has been broken down to reveal all the necessary details. Work packages decompose the work breakdown structure, exposing every essential element.

  • It gives the stakeholders something to smile about

Usually, stakeholders and upper managers focus on the deliverables that rank higher in the work breakdown structure. Whereas this is understandable, the work package view is one of the best ways of measuring and displaying additional accomplishments, which you can relay to the stakeholders of a given project.

Best Practices on Coming Up with a Good Work Package

Like the WBS, you need a team’s input to come up with the Work Package. However, the project manager also needs to engage subject matter experts and experienced employees to help develop the document. Here are some of the best practices to ensure that you have the best work package:

  • Avoid over decomposing

It would be best to stop breaking down the WBS excessively when coming up with a work package. You should first figure out the right work package size, and in doing so, we suggest that you stick to the 8/80 rule.

This principle dictates that a work package should not take less than eight hours and not more than 80 hours for completion. You can also figure out if the team can complete the work package between the reporting periods. These two should help you come up with an excellent work package.

  • Consider the estimates

You need to keep the estimates in mind when coming up with the work package. The work package should help you in time and cost estimation, which you should have in mind when preparing one.

  • Come up with a unique thing.

It would help if you made your work package unique. How do you achieve this? Make sure that it is not repeated in the Work Breakdown Structure at any point. This should give the project team enough morale to tackle the tasks.

  • Give responsibilities

Ensure that the work package is assigned to one person. This should make reporting and management easier.

Work Package Example

We have included an example to help you get a clear idea of a work package based on what we have discussed. Take a building construction project as an example. The expected building should have four wings, which, when completed, means the project is over. One such wing could be wing ‘A’ and this will be a work package. What the project team needs to make wing A stand are the project activities, which we will cover in the second part of the paragraph.

To come up with your work package, we advise that you break down the project into phases, then deliverables, before defining the work package.

Project Activity

You must have come across the term ‘activity several times when discussing or coming up with a project management plan. It is closely related to the work package, which explains why several people confuse the two terms.

In simple terms, an activity can be defined as one stage of the project management plan. It is a distinct work portion carried out as the project progresses. Keep in mind that you need several activities to give rise to a deliverable.

Here is something that you probably did not know. After the WBS has been broken down into a work package, the work package is further broken down into the activities.  I hope you can now understand why breaking down these two based on their standard definitions can be pretty difficult.

Each activity typically consists of one or more actions that, when completed, kick off the next stage of the project. Remember that each of these normally has a concrete start and end and also a deadline or timeline for completion.

Project managers are always advised to indicate the activities required to make the project a success. This means that they have to develop an activity list containing all the actions to be done in the project.

After defining the activities, the project manager, with the stakeholders’ help, should sequence them before tracking and managing them. Tracking can be done using a network diagram or a Gantt chart. The former represents all the activities in a sequential, workflow format, whereas the Gannt chart has horizontal bars depicting the projects’ length and duration.

However, one can also choose to use modern project management software solutions that bring together the Gantt charts and the network diagram to build a document representing the project’s activities, dependencies, and workflow.

The dependencies are all the activities connected to others, critical for achieving given objectives. I hope that you can now identify a project work package and activity.

When Does the Work Package Become an Activity?

Now that we have mentioned that the work package gives rise to activities, we need to understand when this happens. Every work package on the list is usually broken down to become an activity, generally written as a verb.

How then will you tell the difference after the work package has been broken down into an activity? A work package usually results in a specific outcome or a deliverable, whereas the activity cannot produce a finished outcome independently. The latter cannot independently fulfill the objectives of a given project.

Benefits of Activities in Project Management

Unlike the work package, we can summarize all the roles played by activities in the project management cycle into one significant role. They decompose the work packages and offer a basis for estimating, scheduling, monitoring, executing, and controlling the project work.

Project activity allows for the successful execution of the work package, which can then be presented to the stakeholders. Remember, they do not independently make up a deliverable.

Project Activity Example

 For this part, we will use our work package example to show you how the activities are generated clearly. Our project was a building construction project, with Wing A as the work package. The activities that should be done to actualize wing A include: plumbing, tiling, building concretes, painting, and roof tiling. These can then be broken down into other sub-tasks or sub-activities, depending on what the project needs.

You can see that a series of activities are needed to realize a deliverable from this example. The same also applies to other projects. Once you have identified the project work package, the activities should be geared towards making it a reality.

Always remember that the work package comes before the list of activities.

Differences Between Project Activities and Work Package

We must have mentioned at least one difference between these two at one point in our article. However, there exist other differences that we feel we should outline. These should help you differentiate these two in detail.

  • Relation to deliverables

The work package is usually the lowest component or level of the deliverable in a given project. It is derived from the complete breakdown of the WBS. On the other hand, the activity is a means to create a deliverable. Several activities give rise to a work package, which is the lowest level of a deliverable. It would be accurate to say that activities build the work package, just like the work package creates the deliverable.

  • Stakeholders

The work package forms a more significant part of the project, fulfilling a relatively larger portion, resulting in part satisfaction and value to the project stakeholders. On the other hand, the activity itself does not fulfill a portion of the project and cannot, therefore, offer any value to the project stakeholders.

We may have mentioned this indirectly while explaining the benefits of a work package. Remember, the work package is the lowest of the deliverable, which, when fulfilled, has a more significant impact on the project. Fulfilling the work package also results in a tangible value that can be handed over to the project stakeholders. In contrast, the activity being an action cannot be presented to the stakeholders.

  • Definition

We do not mean the standard definition found in the dictionary because that is pretty obvious. The work package is usually defined using a noun. A good example is ‘Wing A’ that we covered in our work package example.

On the other hand, the activity is usually defined using a verb, as you can also establish in our example. Remember, an activity is an action, exp0laining why it is defined as a verb.

Therefore, you should stop and think before using these two terms interchangeably the next time. These two are pretty different, even though most organizations do not find a problem using them as one.

Conclusion

The work package and the project activity are two different terms. Whereas one is the lowest component of the work breakdown structure, the other is a portion of work carried out as the project progresses.

I hope that this article has helped you finally learn how to differentiate these two to avoid confusion as you continue working on your project.

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