What Is a Work Breakdown Structure?

A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a visual, hierarchical outline to guide your project. By first breaking down the deliverables, you can then create tasks, which can again be broken down into subtasks as many times as needed to address the goals of the project.

This process takes large, complex projects and breaks them into more manageable chunks to make it easier to plan, schedule and deliver. The WBS helps with scope, cost and schedule baselines and ensures that your project plan takes all these important factors into account.

By visualizing your project in this manner, you and your resources can collaborate on defining mission critical tasks, their subtasks and the inter-dependencies between them.

Modern online project management tools make creating a WBS simple. ProjectManager.com lets you break down phases, subtasks and dependencies with just a few clicks.

A screenshot of ProjectManager.com’s Gantt chart interface, with a WBS column on the left side displaying order of tasks. A button saying “click here to start your free trial” is superimposed on top.

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

Elements of a Work Breakdown Structure

A typical work breakdown structure is made up of several key components. They are as follows:

  • Task Number & Description: Giving each task a number makes it easy to identify them. A description will help define what the task is, which will provide direction for the team when it’s time to execute it.
  • Task Owner: The owner is the person, organization or department who oversees the task from assignment to completion and ensures that it has been properly executed.
  • Task Dependency: Some of the tasks on the path to the final deliverable will have to wait until another task is done or started before they can begin. This is called a “task dependency” and requires linking the two dependent tasks together in order to avoid slippage later in the project.
  • Cost of Task: Every task is going to have a cost associated with it. You’ll want to note that to keep track of your budget.
  • Start, Finish and Estimated Completion of Task: Add the start and finish dates for each task, and estimate the time you have on your schedule to execute it.
  • Task Status: The status of the task will show whether it’s assigned or not, in progress, late or complete, which helps with tracking.

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. Make a list of all those tasks.
  5. With the tasks now laid out, assign them to the team. Give each team member the tools, resources and authority they need to get the job done.

If you prefer a visual and verbal explanation of this information on work breakdown structures, watch this video.

Work Breakdown Structure Variations

There isn’t just one way to make a WBS. There are in fact many different types. Here are a select few.

Work Breakdown Structure List

Simply put, this is a list of tasks or deliverables, with subtasks. It’s probably the simplest method to make a WBS, which is sometimes all you need.

Work Breakdown Structure Flowchart

The most commonly seen version, the flowchart (or tree) version of a WBS, has all the same elements of the list, but represents the workflow or progress as defined by a diagrammatic representation. We’ll show an example of this in the next section.

Work Breakdown Structure Spreadsheet

While the classic WBS is a tree diagram, all the parts represented in that graphic can be laid out in a spreadsheet, noting the different phases, tasks or deliverables in columns and rows.

Work Breakdown Structure Gantt Chart

A Gantt chart is both a spreadsheet and a timeline. The Gantt chart is a WBS that can do more than a static spreadsheet or tree diagram. With a dynamic Gantt chart, you can link dependencies, set milestones, even set a baseline. This is the most common version in project management software.

Work Breakdown Structure Example

To help you visualize the WBS, let’s take a look at a project. For our example, we’ll be creating a flowchart variant of a work breakdown structure to guide a commercial building project. This is potentially a complex project, but a WBS will take that complexity and boil it down to simpler tasks to make the project manageable.

Study the work breakdown structure example below:

An infographic displaying a work breakdown structure for a commercial project. The main deliverable is broken down into five tasks, which are further broken down into subtasks.

At the top of the work breakdown structure is your final deliverable (in this instance, the commercial project.) Immediately beneath that is the next stage of deliverables, which are the main tasks required to complete the project.

Each of those five deliverables—initiation, planning, execution, control and closeout—branch off the main deliverable at the top. Once decided, they are then broken down into a series of tasks. For example, the initiation phase includes site evaluation work and creating the project charter.

These tasks, however, can be further distilled into smaller subtasks. In the execution phase in our example, we can look at the interior work. This task is divided into two subtasks, which are installing the plumbing and setting up the electricity.

The WBS, when created as thoroughly as possible, is the roadmap to guide you to completion of what would seem to be a very complicated project. However, when broken down with a WBS, the project suddenly becomes much more manageable.

Make a WBS in ProjectManager.com

The purpose of a work breakdown structure in project management is to organize and define the scope of your project. Using ProjectManager.com’s online Gantt charts to build your WBS is not only more efficient, it dovetails into every other aspect of your project, because of our robust suite of project management features.

Here’s a quick summary of how to create a gantt chart variant of a work breakdown structure in our software. Sign up for a free trial of our software and follow along!

1. Identify Phases for Final Deliverable

There are four phases usually associated with managing a project. They are initiation, planning, implementation and closure. Each has its array of related tasks that help lead to the final deliverable. The final deliverable is the end product or service generated by the project.

Identify the phases in your project to create more than a mere task list. Set them apart with our milestone feature on the Gantt chart tool. They can also be color coded to better differentiate the phases.

2. List Subtasks, Describe Tasks & Set Task Owner

Subtasks are part of a larger, more complex task. They break up what would otherwise make the task too unruly, but are related enough to the one task that it would not make sense to create a whole new task to define it.

Add summary tasks above the related tasks and indent them. Descriptions can be noted in the task box and further differentiates the task and gives teams direction. Select a team member to own the task and be responsible for its proper execution.

A screenshot of ProjectManager.com’s Gantt chart interface, showing tasks laid out, and subtasks beneath them, which are represented on the chart.

3. Link Dependencies

Task dependencies are tasks that cannot start until another is finished or started. There are four task dependencies, finish to start, start to start, finish to finish and start to finish.

Link tasks that are dependent on one another by dragging one to the other. We link all four types of task dependencies. By identifying these tasks at this stage, you’ll avoid bottlenecks during execution.

A zoomed-in screenshot of ProjectManager.com’s Gantt chart interface, showing lines that depict dependencies between tasks.

4. Set Resources & Costs

Resources are anything that you need to complete the project. They range from the people on your team to materials, supplies and equipment. Knowing your resources and associated costs are what sets and keeps your project within its budget.

Figure out what resources you’ll need to complete each task and estimate how much they’ll cost. Add those figures to the planned cost column on the Gantt chart. This can then be used to compare to actual costs to track your budget in the project.

A zoomed-in screenshot of ProjectManager.com’s Gantt chart interface, showing resources and costs associated with each task.

5 Add Start & End Dates & Estimated Completion

Every task has a start and an end date. The deadline is when the task must be completed. Estimating completion is predicting how long you think the task will take.

Add the date when the task needs to start in the planned start date column and when it should be completed in the planned finished date. There’s also an estimated completion column for the amount of time you plan for the task to take.

A zoomed-in screenshot of ProjectManager.com’s Gantt chart interface, showing the pop-up menu that allows users to select start and end dates for tasks.

6. Track Task Status

Tracking is how to know if a project is performing as planned. When speaking of tasks, tracking tells you multiple things: logged hours, costs, priority, new communications, the percentage complete and how its actual progress compares to your planned progress.

Track the status of each task as it moves through the project cycle. A dropdown menu allows you to tag the task as either unassigned, assigned, in progress or complete, so you are always aware of its actual status in comparison to the plan.

A zoomed-in screenshot of ProjectManager.com’s task interface, showing the pop-up menu that allows users to select the status and priority of a task.

7. Write Notes

Having a section in which to jot down notes is always advisable. While the WBS is thorough, there might be something you need to address that doesn’t fit into its rigid structure.

Write notes to attach to each task or place them in the description or comment section and collect ideas, thoughts and other observations that don’t fit into any of the other columns.

A screenshot of ProjectManager.com’s task interface, allowing users to add notes to tasks.

8. Generate Reports

Project reports pull data from the project to illuminate its progress, overall health, costs and more.

Generate a report on your WBS by using our reporting tool. Our reports summarize your project data and allow you to filter the results to show just want you want. Reports can also be shared with stakeholders.

A screenshot of a report generated by ProjectManager.com.

Free Work Breakdown Structure Excel Template

If you’re not ready to take the plunge and use ProjectManager.com’s work breakdown structure software, but you’re still interested in seeing how using this tool can help you construct a sturdier plan for your next project, don’t worry. We have an intermediate step you can take.

ProjectManager.com is an award-winning software that organizes projects and teams. We also have a library of free templates, including a free WBS template, to get you started off right.

A screenshot of the Work Breakdown Structure template from ProjectManager.com.

If you decide to try out our software, we offer a free 30-day trial. You can upload the project work breakdown structure template into ProjectManager.com, and it automatically creates a new project in our software. Now you can use that template to plan, schedule, monitor and report on your project.

Because our software is cloud-based, all your data is collected and displayed in real time. We take your WBS and make it more dynamic with our online planning tools to help you define dependencies among the tasks and update these relationships across the project when one task is changed.

Work Breakdown Structures in Project Management

It should be clear why a work breakdown structure is so important to the management of any project. It functions like a to-do list and kick-starts the organizational process. This tool is a place where you can collect every step you’re going to take on your project to reach the deliverable and create a realistic plan and schedule.

Obviously, the project work breakdown structure comes into play very early in the project’s life cycle. It’s a major part of the planning stage. The project manager is usually the person who, with the project team, makes sure that stakeholders’ expectations are met as they develop the plan. This plan is then sent to those stakeholders for approval. The WBS is the instrument that starts off this whole process.

By using a WBS in the planning stage of your project’s life cycle, you’re ensuring that many of the problems that can sidetrack a project when it’s being executed are avoided. Some of the potential issues that can be reduced by using a WBS include scope creep and fuzzy requirements. Because the WBS is a visual ladder that connects every step of the production of a deliverable, you stay on track and can even monitor progress more closely.

Work Breakdown Structure Best Practices

As you’re working on your WBS it is helpful to maintain some best practices. Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Use Nouns: WBS is about deliverables and the tasks that will lead to your final deliverable. Therefore, you’re dealing more on the what than the how. Verbs are great for action, and should be used in your descriptions, but for clarity, stick to nouns for each of the steps in your WBS.
  • Be Thorough: For a WBS to do its job, there must be no holes. Everything is important if it’s part of the course that leads to your final deliverable. To manage that schedule, you need a complete listing of every task, big and small, that takes you there.
  • Keep Tasks Mutually Exclusive: This simply means that there’s no reason to break out individual tasks for work that is already part of another task. If the work is covered in a task because it goes together with that task, then you don’t need to make it a separate task.
  • Go Just Deep Enough: You can get crazy with subtasks on your WBS. The WBS has to be detailed, but not so deep that it becomes confusing. Ideally, think maybe three or five at most levels.

Next Steps for Creating a Work Breakdown Structure

The work breakdown structure is a great way to take the chaos of a project and reign it in. You start with the big picture and then 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. As shown above in the step-by-step guide, our online Gantt charts help project managers plan the project schedule.

Teams work differently than project managers, though; which is why we offer multiple project views. Our kanban boards visualize workflow and task lists for daily work. Teams can keep track of what tasks are high priority, and focus only on where resources match capacity. Managers get transparency into the process and can keep things moving smoothly.

You’ll need to keep track of your progress, so you can avoid scope creep, but that can prove difficult without the right tools. ProjectManager.com has robust, real-time dashboards that allow a high-level view of the project. Easily monitor several key metrics across all of your projects with automatically updating graphs and charts.

All our tools are geared to making your project more efficient and effective. See for yourself by starting your free 30-day trial of our software.

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