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A Guide to Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) In Project Management (with Examples)

Complex projects can be intimidating at first glance. However, there’s a way to make a project less overwhelming and more manageable: using a work breakdown structure (WBS). The WBS is a foundational tool that can help you plan, manage, and monitor large projects.

Sometimes the structure may seem confusing for beginners new to project management. But with the proper knowledge (and practice), you should be able to create and use one effectively.

In this guide, we’ll go over:

  • What is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) in project management?
  • Why is a WBS important in project management?
  • Examples of work breakdown structures
  • How to create a work breakdown structure
  • The difference between a work breakdown structure and a project plan

What is Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) In Project Management?

According to the Project Management Institute’s PMBOK® Guide—Third Edition, a WBS is:

“A deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.

The WBS is an essential project planning tool that allows managers to break down their project scope and visualize all the tasks they need to complete their projects. At the top of the WBS diagram is the final project deliverable and the tasks and work packages associated with it. The levels below display the tasks, deliverables, and work packages needed to complete the project from start to finish.

With a work breakdown structure, you can divide large projects into smaller manageable bits allowing you and your team to get things done faster and more efficiently.

Why is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) important in Project Management?

A work breakdown structure is a helpful project management tool for several reasons.

It makes complex projects manageable

A WBS breaks down the project into bite-size components, making the project less overwhelming and more manageable.

It keeps teams focused on priority tasks

A work breakdown structure is a roadmap for the different individuals and teams working on the project. When all the tasks and packages are well-displayed and organized for everyone, each individual can focus on their specific tasks and deliverables.

It helps track and monitor projects

A WBS is an excellent tool for monitoring the project’s progress because you get to see as teams complete milestones. With this kind of visibility, you can avoid common project management issues including missed deadlines, scope creep, and cost overrun.

Examples of Work Breakdown Structures

There are several types of work breakdown structures in project management that you can use to outline your project deliverables. Here are some common examples.

WBS spreadsheet

You can break down your work in a spreadsheet. In this type of WBS, you list the phases, tasks, or deliverables in columns and rows.

WBS flowchart

Another way you can structure your WBS is in a diagrammatic workflow. The flowchart WBS is one of the most common ways to break down project work. In this type of WBS, your phases, tasks, or deliverables cascade down the flowchart.

WBS list

One of the most straightforward ways of structuring your WBS is as a list of deliverables, tasks, and subtasks. It’s also known as an outline view.

WBS Gantt chart

You can also structure your WBS as a Gantt chart with a visual timeline of your phases, tasks, or deliverables. This type of WBS allows you to link task dependencies and indicate project milestones.

How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure

Here are six steps to create a work breakdown structure.

Step 1. Define the project scope, goals, and objectives

Start by defining your project goals and objectives. Then establish your project scope. Document your project scope, team members, goals, and objectives in your project charter.

Step 2. Identify project phases and task categories

Once you’re clear on your project scope, the next step is to break it into a series of phases that will take the project from initiation to completion. You can also create task categories for various work areas you want to keep track of.

Step 3. List your project deliverables

Identify all the high-level deliverables associated with the project. List them and identify everything that’s needed to deliver those deliverables successfully. This could include; sub-deliverables, work packages, resources, participants, etc.

Step 4. Set WBS levels

In this step, you deconstruct your project scope into a hierarchy. Start with the final project deliverable and then list all the deliverables and work packages that teams must complete to get to that final deliverable.

Step 5. Create work packages

After creating your WBS levels, take your deliverables and break them down into every single task and subtask that’s necessary to deliver them. Group the task and subtasks into work packages. The work packages should define each task’s work, duration, and costs.

Step 6. Identify team members

With all tasks now laid out, identify an individual or team responsible for each. Assign the tasks and indicate deadlines for each.

Tips for Creating a Work Breakdown Structure

As you build your work breakdown structure, use the following rules for success:

  • The 100% rule: The work illustrated in your WBS must include 100% of the work necessary to complete the overarching project goal without having unnecessary work.
  • Mutually exclusive: Don’t include a sub-task twice or account for any amount of work twice. Doing so will violate the 100% rule.
  • Outcomes, not actions: Always focus on deliverables and outcomes rather than actions.
  • The 8/80 rule: To determine if a work package is small enough, use the 8/80 rule, which states that a work package shouldn’t take less than eight hours of effort or more than 80.
  • Three levels: Generally, a WBS should include about three levels of detail though some branches can be more subdivided than others.
  • Make assignments: You should assign every work package to a specific team or individual, and there shouldn’t be any work overlap.

The Difference between a Work Breakdown Structure and a Project Plan

A Work Breakdown Structure and a Project Plan are essential project management tools, though they serve different purposes.

The main difference between the two tools is the scope. A WBS covers the entire project and gives a detailed description of the work and deliverables. A project plan provides an overall roadmap for effectively completing the project.

The project manager creates the WBS before the project is approved. It shows the scale of the project and its cost, which is vital for those who approve it. Once the project has been approved, the PM creates a plan to set a realistic timetable for when the team should complete each item on the WBS.

Besides breaking the project deliverables into manageable tasks, the WBS also focuses on the cost. Each of the work packages on a WBS has a cost to it. This makes project budgeting more accurate. In contrast, a project plan’s primary focus isn’t on the price of the work but on its schedule. It aims at making sure that project resources are available when required.

Creating your Work Breakdown Structure in Mission Control

If you want to create a comprehensive and detailed WBS, a software tool might be the way to go. Mission Control is an intuitive project management software structure that allows you to break down your work easily.

Use our industry-leading Gantt chart to efficiently build your WBS and then help your team to execute it via our easy-to-use Kanban boards.

Are you ready to see for yourself how Mission Control can kickstart your project management? Request a demo today.



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