(WBS) Work Breakdown Structure Examples: The Method Overview
What is a Work Breakdown Structure in Project Management? Work Breakdown Structure Example Template The benefits of using a WBS How to set up your WBS in 4 steps Work Breakdown Structure guidelines How to create a Work Breakdown Structure: Traditional vs Tech Best Software for your Work Breakdown Structure The next steps after a WBS
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This method is frequently used in project management to break a project down into more easily completed activities, tasks, and subtasks. This helps to identify all the elements and deliverables that are required to organize a project as a whole.
A Work Breakdown Structure is a visual representation of all team management and project planning processes. This gives you a clear overview of your project, and you can use it to plan your schedule or calculate your estimated budget.
But how do you create an Agile Work Breakdown Structure?
This article explains how a Work Breakdown Structure works and gives you the best tips and tools you can use to set up your WBS. Keep on reading to find out more!
What is a Work Breakdown Structure in Project Management?
The Work Breakdown Structure is based on NASA practices. But it was introduced in 1987 by the Project Management Institute, through the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) guide, with the aim of applying it to the business world.
Simply put, the WBS method aims to break down work into several hierarchical levels. This way, your team can easily structure a project and identify its architecture as a whole.
A Work Breakdown Structure allows project managers to visualize and understand all the essential deliverables and tasks that have to be carried out, making sure that nothing is forgotten.
A WBS can take several forms:
- a flow chart (the most common form of WBS),
- a mind map,
- a tabular list or outline view,
- a simple planned list.
But regardless of the form chosen, the WBS method most often has three to four levels:
- Level 1: the entire project, also known as the parent project or title;
- Level 2: deliverables either in the form of phases, controls accounts, or child tasks;
- Level 3: sub-deliverables called work packages/units or sub-tasks;
- Level 4: the tasks at the lowest level called activities, used to break down work packages even further if necessary
Types of Work Breakdown Structures
As mentioned above, a WBS can come in several forms, but they can also be broken up into types depending on the type of information your team works with or the type of project being worked on.
- Deliverable/product-oriented WBS: A WBS diagram that focuses on the deliverables aspect of the project breaks it down into the physical aspects that need to be created, produced, or delivered to the client at the end of the project. Often tasks in this type of work breakdown structure will be nouns based on the specific deliverable, for example, kitchen doors, or toilet plumbing for a home-construction project.
💡 Keep reading the article to see an example of a deliverable-oriented WBS further below
- Process/phase-oriented WBS: This type of work breakdown structure, as the name indicates, separates different tasks based on the different processes or phases required to complete the project. As opposed to the deliverable-oriented WBS, these tasks are often named using verbs instead of nouns. Using the same home-construction example as before, tasks might now be, install doors, inspect foundations, etc.
Despite the small differences between both types, it’s important to choose a WBS format that accurately reflects the needs of the project.
If your team needs to focus on the exact components to return to clients after the project, then a deliverable-oriented WBS is likely better. If it’s more effective for your team to work in stages, step-by-step then a process-oriented WBS would be more appropriate.
Work Breakdown Structure Example Template
In this example, you’ll see a simplified WBS flowchart that showcases the various different hierarchical levels that are necessary when breaking down your project.
In this Work Breakdown Structure diagram, you can see our level 1 project title: “Parent Task”, we then break down the overall project into various phases through our level 2 deliverables/phases with “Child Tasks”.
Those deliverables are then decomposed further into level 3 subtasks or work packages that deconstruct the necessary actions to achieve the level 2 deliverables.
Finally, we broke up our subtasks into level 4 “work” activities which can then be assigned to individual team members.
The benefits of using a WBS
The WBS method is used so frequently in project management because it has many benefits when it comes to project breakdowns and organization. Here are 7 reasons why you should use a Work Breakdown Structure.
- is a visual tool that gives you an overview of all the work that has to be done for a specific project.
- helps teams to better identify the dependencies between different deliverables and tasks, making it easier to prioritize and plan.
- shows the project functions and key aspects for the different collaborators and stakeholders, while also establishing a spirit of trust with the client if they’re involved in the process.
- can be used to distribute the total projected budget to underlying tasks, and work units, this helps avoid cost overruns or scope creep.
- can identify future risks because it allows you to visualize potential roadblocks starting at the beginning of the project.
- helps anticipate possible delays, when determining the length of specific tasks
- can be used to more easily readjust and restructure your project according to any difficulties encountered.
How to set up your WBS in 4 steps
Setting up a WBS can take some time, but, the more effective your team is when creating your WBS at the beginning of the project, the less likely that any large issues will arise throughout the course of the work.
When setting up your Work Breakdown Structure, it’s essential to have a global vision of the project. In practice, the WBS should cover every aspect and task necessary to complete your project from top to bottom.
#1 - Determine the major outlines and scope of the project
At the beginning stage of the project, your team should be able to define the outlines and scope of the entire project. Create a name for your project, usually in relation to the final outcome, such as E-commerce website creation, or CRM Software project, etc.
Project managers and collaborators should take into account the desired outcomes to avoid scope creep and efficiently set up project objectives.
At this point, the teams/team members that will work on the project should be established so that they can easily be identified in the final step of creating your Work Breakdown Structure.
#2 - Identify the central deliverables or phases of your project
Now that you’ve determined the overall scope of your project, it’s time to set up the structure. This is where your team will identify the essential deliverables or phases required to complete your project.
For example, in a website development project, you might have central phases such as site design, site development, testing and production, and more. Or going back to the previous house construction project example, phases such as foundation, interiors, landscaping, and so on.
These central deliverables or phases will make up Level 2 of your work breakdown structure. Often, these central deliverables will be assigned to different teams as they work on various parts of the project.
#3 - Decompose deliverables into manageable subtasks
Your team has now identified the essential deliverables, but they need to be broken up into attainable subtasks. Decompose each deliverable into work packages, and so on until the workloads at your lowest structure level are sufficiently manageable.
Your team may also continue breaking down work packages until they are easily measurable in terms of budgets, duration, and resources. Despite all this, leaving room for potential changes and modifications to tasks throughout the project can be beneficial.
Splitting your primary deliverables or phases will likely take the longest amount of time, effort, and input from all the involved stakeholders or collaborators. Completing this step effectively will lead to a more successful project in the long run!
💡 If you’re still unsure if your Work Breakdown Structure needs to be broken down more, ask yourself “If I continue to break this down, will it be easier to manage?” if not, you’re likely done separating tasks!
#4 - Assign tasks to the proper collaborators and teams
The final step of setting up your work breakdown structure is to assign the various levels of tasks to the different collaborating teams and team members.
When assigning tasks, it is essential to have a good overall vision of the capabilities of the involved teams. This way, each task can be given to the most appropriate and effective individual/team.
By helping collaborators understand their responsibilities precisely and planning out task distribution, your project team will end up being more productive and efficient.
Need more details? Use a WBS Dictionary!
You did it! Now, you have your amazing document that covers all the tasks required to successfully complete your project. But, maybe your team just needs a little more detail for the different tasks.
To compliment your WBS and for more complex Work Breakdown Structures, your team may want to make a WBS dictionary. This document helps provide more information about your tasks, including:
- Basic task details like its hierarchical ranking, the task name, and task description
- Planning details such as the expected start or finish date, when the task was assigned, potential/expected costs, etc.
- Assignment details such as which department, team, or individual is responsible for a certain task
- Connected task details such as dependencies on other tasks, task priorities, etc.
Here is a simple spreadsheet example of what your WBS dictionary could look like. Depending on the needs of your project, your WBS dictionary may need more or less details, or you might not even need one at all for simple projects.
Work Breakdown Structure guidelines
The Work Breakdown Structure set up process described above may seem simple, it’s only four steps! That is true for the most part, however, it will only work properly if you follow a number of basic rules and principles.
Follow the 100% rule
This rule applies at all levels within the hierarchy: the total work of the “child” tasks must equal 100% of the work of the “parent” task.
Vice-versa, the WBS should not include any work that is not part of the project. Therefore, it cannot include more than 100% of the work.
Here is an example of the 100% rule:
Use exclusive units
When creating your WBS, make sure that each unit is allocated to a specific place and does not appear in several branches at the same time.
By avoiding overlaps, this rule will prevent confusion about the responsibilities of each team and reduce potential duplicate tasks and extra work.
Be precise, but not too precise
You may find it difficult to decide how precise or detailed your WBS should be. To help you, keep the following rule in mind: the lower you go in your work breakdown structure’s levels, the more precise you’ll get.
You’ll eventually need to associate each task with an estimate of the workload, cost, and resources required to complete it. That is more difficult with tasks that are too vast and vague.
In a longer project, your team may also decide to reduce the size of work packages that can be completed faster and reviewed more frequently to avoid potential issues and changes.
This rule will help you place tasks into your diagram and timeline: if a deliverable is very precise, it should generally not require any additional branches.
Keep the 8-80 rule in mind
Another way to structure your work packages is with the 8-80 rule. Simply put, this means that work packages, or your lowest hierarchical structure level, shouldn’t be less than 8 hours or more than 80 hours.
If you end up with work packages requiring 80 hours or more of work, then consider decomposing them even further to make them more manageable.
Creating asymmetrical diagrams is fine!
Each branch of your Work Breakdown Structure does not need to have the same number of levels. Don’t worry about symmetry.
As we’ve seen, if a deliverable or task is very precise, it should not require any additional branches. Some branches are likely to be more dense than others. Therefore, the final shape of your WBS may be asymmetrical.
Focus on project deliverables: nouns rather than actions
Finally, the best way to understand the project is according to results and not according to organizational or functional elements.
In other words, we recommend that you define your various units according to deliverables, using nouns for tasks and not according to the actions required to achieve them. This makes it easier to understand and execute each task.
Here is an example of a WBS organization chart based on deliverables:
How to create a Work Breakdown Structure: Traditional vs Tech
All you need to build your Work Breakdown Structure is a simple sheet of paper, a whiteboard, or even post-it notes. These types of tools are useful for collecting and writing down ideas from different participants and to define a list of tasks during brainstorming sessions to more effectively set up the scope of the project.
Nevertheless, for large-scale projects, or when teams are dispersed, it is more practical to use software that allows you to create and especially enhance the visual quality of the WBS.
Moreover, if there are any changes, it will be easier and faster to make modifications using this type of software.
Best Software for your Work Breakdown Structure
Lucidchart: to create simple diagrams
Lucidchart is an online diagram software that allows you to visually build your WBS.
Thanks to an easy-to-use and intuitive interface, you can use Lucidchart to create charts and diagrams: drag and drop shapes in the work area, then complete them with your information (you can import your data from a CSV file). Then, all you have to do is customize your diagram to your preferences.
Moreover, Lucidchart promotes collaboration: work with others in real-time on your WBS, or simply share your work with others by using integration tools such as Slack.
monday.com: an all-in-one project management software
monday.com is a team management tool that you can use to manage your WBS.
Thanks to its system of customizable tables, you can manage your tasks and subtasks using a visual and intuitive tool. Once you have identified your projects, assign each of them the necessary resources and budget.
This project management tool goes one step further, by providing time management features (to meet the project lifecycles) and by offering different views of your tables, with a Gantt chart for example.
The next steps after a WBS
Using the WBS method and creating a Work Breakdown Structure diagram is a key step to kickstart any type of project.
However, despite the many benefits it offers, it is not the only tool that a project manager should rely on, especially for the execution of important projects. For example, the WBS does not precisely identify the time that must be allocated to the completion of each task. Nor does it define their order of task completion.
This is why this method is most often used before other methods and tools such as PERT and Gantt charts. WBS, PERT, and Gantt charts can then be used together to provide an effective overall vision of the project and the process to follow to completion!
Therefore, we recommend using other tools and project management software to complement the method. It offers project managers both the flexibility and agility required for complex projects, but also the opportunity to deal with the steps occurring after the WBS in the project follow-up.