Mastering the Work Breakdown Structure in Project Management

Master the Work Breakdown Structure in project management and you’ll be able to deliver your projects on time and meet or exceed stakeholder expectations.

What is a Work Breakdown Structure?

A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a process for breaking a larger project into smaller, more manageable elements. It is a tool of project management that helps to organize and define the scope of work for a project.

Each component of the WBS represents a deliverable or a milestone. These are then broken down further until the work is detailed enough to be assigned to a team or an individual.

The 4 Views of Work Breakdown Structures?

There are four main styles of Work Breakdown Structures. Which you choose to use will depend on the complexity of the project and your goals.

  1. Outline View. This style follows a basic outlining system. It’s simple to use, and it’s easy to make changes. (The numbering feature in Microsoft Word updates the WBS code automatically.)
  2. Hierarchical Structure. This structure is similar to the outline view, but without the indentation. It is a bit more complex, but it can be useful when you have many levels and indenting each one would make the table too large.
  3. Tabular View. This is a nicely organized view that some people may find appealing because of the way the information is grouped. It’s a good option for organizations that prefer table formats.
  4. Tree Structure View. The WBS is often represented in the form of a tree structure, with the project listed at the top and lower-level components branching out below it. This style offers even more visual clarity because each task has its own box. Each level of the tree represents a different level of detail with the lowest level representing the work packages.

Why Is a Work Breakdown Structure Important?

Organizing the work involved in reaching a goal is critical to the success of any project. The WBS 

helps to make sure that each task has been assigned and all bases have been covered. It’s also instrumental in identifying dependencies between tasks, estimating time and resources, and developing a project schedule and budget.

There are many reasons to use a Work Breakdown Structure:

  • Define and organize project scope. Breaking a large project into smaller components helps to clarify the scope of the project. This helps to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. 
  • Effective project management. Using a Work Breakdown Structure provides a clear framework for managing a project. It makes it easier to track progress, completion times and the status of the budget. It also helps project managers plan and allocate resources more effectively.
  • Facilitates communication and collaboration. The WBS can be shared with the team, as well as stakeholders to ensure everyone is on the same page. It also fosters collaboration and coordination between team members.
  • Improves estimation and budgeting. Effectively estimating time and resources required for each task, leads to a more accurate project schedule. This helps keep the budget in check by reducing the risk of cost overruns and project delays.
  • Basis for progress tracking and reporting. The WBS provides a framework for tracking progress and reporting project status to stakeholders. This enables project managers to identify issues early and take corrective action before they become major problems.

In a nutshell, the Work Breakdown Structure is an important tool for project management that helps to ensure that projects are completed on time, within budget, and to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

What are the Common Elements of a WBS?

A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) typically contains the following common elements:

  • Project Name. The name of the main project.
  • Project Number. The unique identifier assigned to the project.
  • Deliverables. The tangible outcomes or results that are required for the project to be considered complete.
  • Work Packages. These are components small enough to be assigned to a team or an individual for execution. Work packages typically contain a brief description of the task, resources required, and an estimated duration.
  • Milestones. Achievements or important events that mark progress. They are typically used for tracking and reporting project status to stakeholders.
  • WBS Dictionary.  The dictionary provides additional detail on each task and is seen as a complementary piece to the Work Breakdown Structure.  

These common elements help to ensure that the WBS is comprehensive, detailed, and easy to understand, making it a useful tool for project management and execution.

What is the WBS Dictionary?

Because of its visual nature, the Work Breakdown Structure does not allow space for a great deal of detail related to the tasks. The dictionary is a complementary resource for team members where they can find more information and determine the scope of their particular package. So, it’s important to be clear when writing the definition.

The project manager collects materials from a variety of sources to create the dictionary. It typically includes specific information such as Level of Effort (LoE), Cost Control Numbers, and Responsibility Assignments.

Each component in the structure has a WBS Code, which is a unique number with the purpose of designating elements in hierarchical location within the WBS. The number corresponds to its entry in the dictionary making it easy to find what you’re looking for. 

How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure.

Choose one of the four styles of structure and begin at the top. Start with the larger elements of the project and break them down into work packages that can be handled by an individual or small team.

  1. Define the Project Scope. Clearly identify the project objectives, deliverables, and scope. Define the major stages required to achieve the project goals.
  2. Create a List of Deliverables. Identify all the deliverables, such as reports and software modules, that are required to complete the project. These should be tangible outcomes. Be sure the list is complete, and no important items have been left out.
  3. Determine the Top Tier Components. What high level components are required to achieve the project goals? These may be the major phases of the project, such as Planning, Design, Implementation, Testing, and Deployment.
  4. Breakdown the Components. Breakdown each major phase or stage into smaller, more manageable components or work packages until they are small enough to be easily managed by the project team.
  5. Identify Tasks. For each work package, identify the specific tasks or activities required to complete it. Make sure the tasks are clearly defined, and their dependencies are identified.
  6. Create the WBS Dictionary. This auxiliary piece gives team members more details about each work package.
  7. Assign Resources. List the resources needed for each task or work package, including personnel, equipment, and materials.
  8. Estimate Time and Costs. Estimate the time and costs required to complete each task or work package. Be realistic with your estimates.
  9. Create a WBS Chart. Organize the Work Breakdown Structure into a prioritized chart that reflects the relationships between the project components, work packages, tasks, and milestones.
  10. Validate the WBS. Review the breakdown with your project team and stakeholders to be sure that it is both complete and accurate.
  11. Use it. Make sure everyone on the team is using the Work Breakdown Structure from beginning to end and be vigilant about updating it throughout the project lifecycle. 

Does Agile Use Work Breakdown Structures?

While both WBS and Agile methods such as Scrum, use a top-down approach to breaking a larger project into smaller tasks, WBS represents a more formal methodology. Agile projects use tools that are better suited to the ever-evolving nature of Agile development. 

However, Agile planning often starts with a high-level product backlog, which contains a prioritized list of features or user stories and breaks it into smaller, tasks. So, while Agile projects may not use a formal WBS, they do use a similar process. This approach helps Agile teams to remain nimble and respond quickly to changes in the project or business environment.

Example of a Work Breakdown Structure.

The Tree Structure featured below is the most popular format for creating a WBS, but it can be a bit of work to design without a special application to create it. Take a look at WBS template to see which might work best for your project.