What Is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)?

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The industry-standard definition of a work breakdown structure is a “deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition that offers digestible tasks for team members to meet the project’s objectives and create the required deliverables.”

That’s a mouthful.

Put another way: the purpose of the breakdown structure is to organize and define the scope of your project. That’s it. You can start by identifying the key deliverables and noting when they’re being produced.

WBS is a Visual Guide to Your Project

By breaking down the deliverables, you then create sub-deliverables, which again can be broken down as far down as needed to address the concerns of the project. By visualizing this in a graphical way, you and your resources can collaborate on defining mission critical tasks and their related subtasks and, eventually, inter-dependencies between them.

A work breakdown structure is your map through more complicated projects. One project may include several phases, or also smaller sub-projects. Even sub-projects can be broken down into smaller bits. In so doing, you gain clarity into the details needed to accomplish every aspect of your project.

How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure

There are five steps to creating a work breakdown structure. These are the big steps, the bird’s-eye view of a WBS, which eventually gets down to the granular level. But it’s good to know the main parts of what is needed to construct a thorough WBS.

  1. Begin with the project charter—the scope, objectives and who is participating in the project—determine what it is and describe it.
  2. The next level down is the project phases: break the larger project statement of intent into a series of phases that will take it from conception to completion.
  3. What are your deliverables? List them all and note what is necessary for those deliverables to be deemed successfully delivered.
  4. Take your deliverables from above and break them down into every single task that is necessary to deliver them, and then list all those tasks.
  5. With the tasks now laid out, assign them to the team and give each team member the tools, resources and authority they need to get the job done.

WBS Example

To help you visualize the WBS, let’s take a look at a project, such as building a home. A house is a complex project and a WBS will take that complexity and boil it down to simpler tasks that make the project manageable.

At the top of your WBS would be the final deliverable, which is the construction of the house. Beneath that would be the next stage of deliverables, in this case that would be the foundation, internal work and external work that is required to complete the house.

Each of those three deliverables—the foundation, internal and external work—branch off the main deliverable of the house and are then broken down into a series of tasks. For example, the external work includes masonry work and building finishes.

Work Breakdown Structure TREE Diagram

These tasks, however, can still be distilled to smaller subtasks. Therefore, continuing with our external work example, we can look at the masonry work. This would be divided into a number of subtasks, such as laying the masonry, installing roof drains and roofing.

The WBS when created as thoroughly as possible is a roadmap that collects all the stops on your way to, in this instance, building a house. You can see how a seemingly insurmountable project, when broken down with a WBS, feels like something that can be accomplished, because it shows you how to do it.

Work Breakdown Structure Template

If a narrative definition is not as helpful as having a WBS to play with, don’t worry. As noted above, ProjectManager.com has you covered. We have lots of project management templates to give you a foothold on every aspect of your project, including a free WBS template so you can get started right away.

Pro Tip: An online planning tool will help you define dependencies among the tasks and will update these relationships across the project when one task is changed.

ProjectManager.com and WBS

The WBS is the way to take the chaos of a project and reign it into doable parts. You start with the big picture and you drill down to the details. Once you have a WBS for your project, you need to plan, execute and monitor its progress. That’s where ProjectManager.com comes in with our cloud-based software. Our online Gantt charts help you plan by linking task dependencies.

Gantt Chart view in ProjectManager.com's software
ProjectManager.com has easy-to-use online Gantt charts. Make one in seconds!

We also have kanban boards visualize workflow and task lists for daily work. All our tools are geared to making your project more efficient and effective. See for yourself by taking this free 30-day trial of our software.

Want to Know More About WBS?

A work breakdown structure allows you to visualize your deliverables and see all the tasks and subtasks that are required. Projects can be overwhelming. The WBS is like taking an already assembled puzzle and organizing the pieces. When you know what you’re doing, it’s easier to put together.

No matter the industry, if you’re engaged in a project, the WBS can help take even the most complex jobs and whittle them down into small, understandable and, most importantly, manageable bits. From there you can begin to know what your cost estimation for the project will be, scheduling and so much more.

There’s always more to learn. If you’re interested, our resident expert, Jennifer Bridges, PMP, hosts this tutorial video explaining the work breakdown structure.

Thanks for watching!

Transcription

Hello, I’m Jennifer, Director of ProjectManager.com. Well, welcome to our whiteboard session today on what is a work breakdown structure. A lot of times we get questions from the forum and other sources and people calling really trying to understand what the work breakdown structure is and there is so much confusion out there because it gets tied into maybe a software tool or other aspects and people can’t determine what’s the difference between that, a schedule and other parts of the project. I want to take the time out on this whiteboard session just to clarify what the work breakdown structure is.

Well you know me, I’m big on terms and I like to be clear and go forward on a real definition of terms so a lot of times you’ll see me on the whiteboard sessions reference my good friend, Google. Well in this case, I’m referencing A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge by PMI and this specifically is the 4th edition. You can reference other project management sources of your own that you may use and prefer instead, but this is mine. What PMI and the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, the PMBOK Guide, says a work breakdown structure is deliverable-oriented hierarchical decompositions so that we’re breaking something apart of the work to be executed by the team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.

Many times I see the teams get confused because they lose track of, they lose essence of, why are we doing this project and specifically we’re doing a project is to produce the deliverables. This is a very important piece and if you can create a work breakdown structure from the beginning and identify the deliverables being produced when. Then a picture truly is worth a thousand words, for not only you the project manager but your team. It sets the vision again for the project objectives.

So let’s take a look at the purpose. The purpose again is to organize and define the total scope. So the scope is comprised of the deliverables. So this hierarchical decomposition of the work; it looks like this, here’s a graphical picture. Here’s just generically, you can take this generic hierarchical structure and again breaking it down for your own. Here’s a project and in this specific one you may work on projects that include pPhases so there may be a Phase 1, Phase 2 or other multiple Phases. This one has two Phases and a Deliverable, a main high level deliverable produced and this also has subprojects. This also can include subprojects that are broken down as well. But if you look at Phase 1 and break down this, this has two Deliverables beneath the Phase, so it’s producing two main Deliverables and so we look at what’s the work required to produce these Deliverables.

So we keep breaking it down, we break it down to the work; the work to be executed, so work is executed by work packages. This Deliverable 1 is broken down to other subdeliverables and which are broken down eventually to work packages. And remember your team members are completing work packages that produce these deliverables. And again, this can continue to be broken down but this simply is a work breakdown structure. I think it’s very important to understand the definition and the structure, the purpose and how we do this.

Truly a picture is worth a thousand words and I hope this one helps you for your teams and your projects. At ProjectManager.com, we believe firmly in work breakdown structures and that they do and can create a picture that’s worth a thousand words for you and your team. So if you need a tool that can help you decompose the work done on your project, then sign up for our software at ProjectManager.com.

(This post was updated November 2019)

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