What is a work breakdown structure (WBS)?
Complex projects can often benefit from being broken down into smaller pieces to make them more manageable. And it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to managing projects more effectively. Read on to learn about work breakdown structures (WBS) and how to start implementing this approach.
This post will cover:
- What is a work breakdown structure (WBS)?
- Characteristics of a WBS
- How to create a WBS
- WBS examples
- Work breakdown structure vs. work breakdown schedule
- Evaluate software to utilize WB
What is a work breakdown structure (WBS)?
A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a project management system that breaks projects into smaller, more manageable components or tasks. It is a visual tool that breaks down the entire project to make it easier to plan, organize, and track progress. A WBS assigns each task a unique identifier and then places them within a hierarchical structure that shows the relationship between each task and its related deliverables.
The main goals of a WBS are to provide a clear understanding of the project scope, identify all the work that needs to be done, and power effective project planning and management.
Characteristics of a WBS
There are two distinct approaches to creating a WBS that you can choose from — deliverable based (which focuses on individual tasks or parts of the project scope) or phase based (which breaks down projects by timeline).
Each WBS will look slightly different — depending on your existing workflow, the size of your team, and the type of project you’re working on. But there are a number of common characteristics that you’ll find in most work breakdown structures.
- Hierarchical structure. The WBS is a hierarchical decomposition of a project into smaller, more manageable components. The top level of the hierarchy represents the project’s major deliverables, while the lower levels break down each deliverable into smaller, more manageable tasks.
- Unique identifier. Each component of the WBS is assigned a unique identifier, such as a number or code, to enable tracking, monitoring, and control of the project work.
- Defined scope. The WBS defines the project scope by identifying all the tasks that need to be completed to accomplish the project objectives. This enables project managers to plan, organize, and control the project work effectively.
- Visual representation. The WBS is typically presented as a graphical representation, such as a tree diagram, to make it easier to understand and communicate.
How to create a WBS
Now that you understand how a WBS works, here’s a step-by-step process for creating one for your next project:
- Define the project. The first step to creating a WBS is defining your project goals, objectives, and scope.
- Set project boundaries. Next, identify any key boundaries to help clearly define what is and isn’t included in the project scope. This could also include any important deadlines that you need to meet for your project to be successful.
- Identify project deliverables or phases. Once you’ve clearly defined your project, you’ll want to identify what needs to be completed, by who, and by what date.
- Define level one elements. These elements are high-level summaries of the deliverables required to meet the scope of the project.
- Break down each of the level one elements. Start “decomposing” each of the level one elements into unique lower level deliverables. Break down each element until any additional breakdown no longer makes the project easier to work through.
- Create a WBS dictionary. In this step, you’ll want to deliver a description of the work contained in each element. You’ll also want to define project information, including budgets, milestones, boundaries, risks, project owners, terms, and more.
- Identify team members. Here, describe the project team, stakeholders, and other interested parties. This will help everyone understand the scope of the project, who is working on which tasks, and the dependencies between tasks.
- Create a Gantt chart schedule. Gantt charts are an effective way to visually represent a project that makes it easy to understand task dependencies and project milestones.
There are a number of formats that a WBS can take, but here are a few examples to get you started:
- WBS spreadsheet. WBS spreadsheets are helpful invisually representing the ordering of different tasks or project activities during project planning.
- WBS flowchart. Expressing a WBS as a flow chart makes it easy to see all of the components of the whole project separated by category, team, or project stage.
- WBS list. It can also be useful to express your WBS as a list of tasks or deadlines to monitor progress from a high level.
- WBS Gantt chart. Using a Gantt chart to express your WBS allows you to get a visual representation of the entire timeline of your project.
Work breakdown structure vs. work breakdown schedule
If you’re already familiar with project management styles, you may have heard of both work breakdown structures and work breakdown schedules.
A work breakdown structure is a hierarchical decomposition of an entire project into smaller and more manageable components or tasks.
A work breakdown schedule, on the other hand, is a time-based plan that shows the duration and order of each task in the work breakdown structure. So while the two are related, a work breakdown schedule is just a part of the larger WBS.
Evaluate software to utilize WBS
A well-structured WBS breaks down projects into manageable components so that it is more manageable and less overwhelming. When you’re ready to get started, assess your current approach to project management to see if using WBS can help.
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