Updated: Aug 18, 2020
Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a key project deliverable that organizes a team's work into manageable sections.
The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines the work breakdown structure as a "deliverable oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team."
The work breakdown structure visually defines the scope into manageable chunks that a project team can understand, as each level of the work breakdown structure provides further definition and detail.
An easy way to think about a work breakdown structure is as an outline or map of the specific project. A work breakdown structure starts with the project as the top-level deliverable and is further decomposed into sub-deliverables.
The project team creates the project work breakdown structure by identifying the major deliverables and subdividing those deliverables into smaller systems and sub-deliverables.
These sub-deliverables are further broken down until a single person may be assigned.
At this level, specific work packages required to produce the sub-deliverable are identified and grouped together.
The work package represents the list of tasks or "to-dos" to produce a specific unit of work.
If you've ever seen detailed project schedules, then you'll recognize the tasks under the work package as the things people need to complete by a specific time and within a specific level of effort.
From a cost point of view, these work packages are normally grouped and assigned to a specific department to produce the work.
These departments, or cost accounts, are defined in an organizational breakdown structure and are allocated a budget to produce the specific deliverables.
By integrating the cost accounts from the organizational breakdown structure and the project's work breakdown structure, the entire organization may track financial progress in addition to project performance.
Why Should We Use a Work Breakdown Structure?
The work breakdown structure has a number of benefits in addition to defining and organizing the project work. A project budget may be allocated to the top levels of the work breakdown structure, and department budgets then are quickly calculated based on each project's work breakdown structure.
By allocating time and cost estimates to specific sections of the work breakdown structure, a project schedule and budget may be quickly developed.
As the project unfolds, specific sections of the work breakdown structure may then be tracked to identify project cost performance and identify issues and problem areas in the project organization.
Project work breakdown structures can also be used to identify potential risks in a given project. If a work breakdown structure has a branch that is not very well defined then it represents a scope definition risk.
These risks should be tracked in a project log and reviewed as the project executes. By integrating the work breakdown structure with an organizational breakdown structure, the project manager may also identify communication points and formulate a communication plan across the project organization.
When a project is falling behind, referring to the work breakdown structure may quickly identify the major deliverables impacted by a failing work package or late sub- deliverable.
The work breakdown structure might also be color-coded to represent a sub-deliverable's status.
Assigning colors of red for late, yellow for at-risk, green for on-target, and blue for completed deliverables is an effective way to produce a heat-map of project progress and draw management's attention to key areas of the work breakdown structure.
Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) Guidelines
The following guidelines should be considered when creating a work breakdown structure:
The top-level represents the final deliverable or project
Sub-deliverables contain work packages that are assigned to an organization’s department or unit
All elements of the work breakdown structure don’t need to be defined to the same level
The work package defines the work, duration, and costs for the tasks required to produce the sub-deliverable
Work packages should not exceed 10 days of duration
Work packages should be independent of other work packages in the work breakdown structure
Work packages are unique and should not be duplicated across the work breakdown structure
Tools to Create a Work Breakdown Structure
Creating a Work Breakdown Structure is a team effort and is the culmination of multiple inputs and perspectives for the given project. One effective technique is to organize a brainstorming session with the various departments planned to be involved with the project.
Project teams can use low-technology tools like whiteboard, note cards, or sticky note pads to identify major deliverables, sub-deliverables, and specific work packages. These cards can be taped to a wall and reorganized as the team discusses the major deliverables and work packages involved in the project.
This low-technology approach is easy to do; however, it does not work well with distributed teams or translate easily into an electronic format.
There are several tools available that support mind mapping, brainstorming, and work breakdown structures.
For maximum benefit, a team should look to utilize a software that is made to easily export to a project management software that detail may be added later!
The usual players here are Primavera P6 and Microsoft Project.
What is WBS in Project Management and Planning?
We hope you now have an understanding of WBS and why it matters in project planning and management.
Set your projects out on the right foot, break things down into manageable chunks that you might have things done on time and within budget!
Make sure to check out the related articles below to learn more about project planning and management as the project unfolds!
Thanks a lot and take care,
The Project Cracker Team