wbs work package vs activity

Work Package vs Activity: Understand The Difference With Examples

You might be looking for the difference between Work Package and Activity. It is very difficult to contrast work package vs activity by just looking at their definitions. In this article, you will find explanation and examples of these terms that will help you to understand the difference.

The main difference between work package and activity is that work packages are at a higher level in Work Breakdown structure (WBS) than activities. A work package is comprised of a sequence of activities that culminates into a deliverable.

Practically, it doesn’t matter whether you call a Work Package an Activity or vice-versa. At the end of the day, you have to complete your project. The project work will not change because of nomenclature.

However, if you are preparing for the PMP Exam then it is important to distinguish between a Work Package and Activity.

You can also look at the following video to understand the difference.

Work Package vs Activity

Work Package Definition

The work defined at the lowest level of the work breakdown structure for which cost and duration can be estimated and managed.

PMBOK® Guide

You can refer to Max Wideman Glossary to read some other standard definitions.

A WBS is a deliverable oriented structure. A deliverable is a tangible outcome that gives satisfaction to one or more project stakeholders.

Work packages are smallest deliverable in a project. They are reside at the lowest level of a WBS.

Activity Definition

A distinct, scheduled portion of work performed during the course of a project.

PMBOK® Guide

You can refer to Max Wideman Glossary to read some other standard definitions.

A work package is further decomposed into a sequence of activities. An activity in itself does not produce a deliverable but a sequence of activities culminates into a deliverable.

The above definitions are somewhat confusing. Even though the definitions absolutely correct, it is kind of impossible to differentiate between Work Package and Activity just by looking at these definitions.

Explanation and Examples of Work Package and Activity

In simple terms we can say that

Work Package is a result of an endeavor.

Or

a series of actions results in (creates) a Work Package.

Let us explore it further. A Work Package

  1. is smallest level of deliverable.
  2. is lowest component of a WBS.*
  3. cannot be broken down further. It cannot be decomposed into a smaller level deliverable.*
  4. provides some tangible value to the project stakeholder(s).
  5. is recognized, required and valued by the project Stakeholder(s).
  6. gives a sense of fulfillment & achievement to the project team.
  7. provides satisfaction to the the project Stakeholder(s). It is handed over to the project Stakeholder(s), once it is created.

Refer to the previous para. I wrote “a series of actions results in a (creates) a Work Package”. These actions are, in fact, the Activities performed by the project team. In simple terms we can say that series of activities creates a Work Package. An Activity, in itself, may not produce any tangible outcome but a series of Activities would result into a deliverable.

Examples

Let us take a look at two examples to understand the difference further.

Software Development Project – Let us assume that project team has created a WBS with software modules as work packages. Integration of all modules will result in the completion of the software product. One such module could be “Module X” – it would be a work package. Project Team will have to perform series of Activities to create “Module X”. These Activities might include Algorithm Writing, DB preparation, Coding, Testing, Integration etc. Project Team might have to repeat these activities until delivery ready “Module X” is created.

Building Construction Project – Let us assume that project team has created a WBS with building floors as work packages. Completion of all floors will result in the completion of the Building. One such floor could be “Floor N” – it would be a work package. Project Team will have to perform series of Activities to construct “Floor N”. These Activities might include Floor laying, Wiring, Painting, Inspection etc. Project Team might have to repeat these activities until delivery ready “Floor N” is completed.

Final Thoughts – Difference Between Work Package and Activity

The difference between work package vs activity is summarized in the table below.

Work PackageActivity
It is one of the lowest level of deliverables in a project.It is a means to create a deliverable. A series of activities results in a lowest level of deliverable.
It is the result or outcome of an endeavor.It is one step of the endeavor.
It fulfills a portion of project and provides part satisfaction and some value to the project stakeholders.An activity, in itself, does not provide any value to the project stakeholders.
A deliverable has a tangible value and it is generally handed over to the project stakeholders.It cannot be handed over to the project stakeholders.
It is generally defined using a noun (outcome) e.g. ‘Module X’.It is generally defined using a verb (work to be done) e.g. ‘testing’.

Frequently Asked Questions


Yes. Project team is free to create its own WBS and define Work Packages (lowest level deliverables). Some of these lowest level deliverables may be outsourced to a vendor. The vendor could treat such outsourced deliverables as a complete project. e.g. If “Module X” is outsourced to a Vendor, then the performing organization would treat “Module X” as a Work Package while the Vendor would treat it as an entire Project.

Yes. It depends on the level of Decomposition. Different people tend to think differently. Different project managers may define WBS differently for the same project.

No. it depends upon the organizational guidelines, stakeholder preferences, environment, type of project, project manager’s bias and many other varied factors. A WBS is good, as long as it includes the total scope of work. You can also read 2 ways to create WBS.

You can read my other article that talks about 7 reasons to create WBS.

Over To You

How do you use the terms work package and activity in your organization? Do you use them interchangeably? Do you think it is important to distinguish between these terms.

I would love to hear from you.

11 thoughts on “Work Package vs Activity: Understand The Difference With Examples”

  1. Great work in differentiating the WBS and Activity, Sometimes in my past i have referred a WBS as an activity during my representations. Hereafter will have a different note on both. Thanks MR PM

    Reply
  2. Hi,
    I am a PMP aspirant. I understand that the WP is the work defined at the lowest level of the WBS for which duration and cost can be estimated. Does it mean aggregate value of duration or costs of all the activities to complete this WP? I mean the bottom-up approach and it produces only the cost of WP, not the project cost.

    Reply
    • Mahabubur,

      Three things:
      1. Aggregate cost of all WP activities + Contingency reserves = Cost of WP
      2. “Aggregate duration of all WP activities” may or may not be equal to “Duration of WP”. The “Duration of WP” will depend on how WP activities are scheduled.
      3. Aggregate cost of all WP + Contingency reserves = Project Cost.

      Hope it helps.

      Reply
  3. Hi Praveen,

    When the WBS is developed, what is the approach to estimate its work packages? Per PMBOK (when using buttom-up methods) we need first to create a list of avtivities for each work packagess and estimate each of those activities. Such edtimates then roll up to the work package level. But some literature on the subject doesn’t mention esimating of activities first in order to estimate a work package. Instead it suggest to edtimste effort and duration right on work package level.
    Please explain that.

    Thank you,
    Alex

    Reply
  4. Hi Alex,

    PMBOK Guide does not prescribe any particular method. You should read the definition of Work Package in Glossary section of the PMBOK Guide. It clearly says that estimation can be done at WP level.

    Estimation can be done at the Project or planning package level also. It depends on the how much detailed information you have about the component you are estimating and how much deep are you willing to go.

    Hope it helps.

    Reply
    • There is no comparison between WBS and estimation. WBS is a diagram while estimation is done to forecast the quantitative value of time, cost or resources.

      BR, Praveen.

      Reply
    • Hameed, I would suggest you to read the article again especially FAQs. There could be organizational guidelines for such limits. But generalization is impossible since every industry has different type of projects. You might find some limits in old PM literature but such limits are unnecessary.

      BR, Praveen.

      Reply

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