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What is a WBS in Project Management, and How Do You Use it?

wbs in project management

Have you ever had an enormous task, but the size and scope were so intimidating that it was hard to begin? You just stare at it, seeing that there’s so much to be done that you don’t know where even to begin.

Or you’ve had a project set out to accomplish so much that you must have things organized and broken down into easily managed parts.

That’s why this article tackles the concept of the work breakdown structure, or WBS for short. We are going to explore the role of WBS in project management. We will explore the definition of the WBS, the different types of work breakdown structures, their characteristics, and other helpful information, like a project management bootcamp, to get practical experience creating them.

So, let’s begin our journey with the fundamentals. What is a work breakdown structure?

What is a Work Breakdown Structure in the Context of Project Management?

To get the best definition of the work breakdown structure in project management, we turn to the most authoritative source on the subject, the Project Management Institute. According to the PMI, a work breakdown structure is: “a product-oriented “family tree” of project components that organizes and defines the total scope of the project. Each descending level represents an increasingly detailed definition of a project component. Project components may be products or services.”

The shorter version: a WBS is a helpful diagram illustrating any project’s visual, hierarchical, and deliverable-oriented deconstruction, handy for project managers. It breaks down the structure of all the work that must be done, beginning with the most overarching objective and working its way down to the minor bits of deliverables.

Also Read: Understanding Scope in Project Management: Definition and Importance

Benefits of Work Breakdown Structure in Project Management

A WBS has much to offer in project management:

  • It facilitates better project planning and control
  • It breaks the project into smaller pieces, letting project managers estimate the time and cost needed to complete each task more accurately
  • It helps keep the project on track, and all deliverables are accounted for
  • It encourages and promotes communication and collaboration among team members and stakeholders, ensuring everyone’s on the same page regarding project goals and timelines

So, is there any difference between the WBS meaning and a work breakdown schedule? Let’s find out.

The Difference between WBS and a Work Breakdown Schedule

WBS stands for Work Breakdown Structure. This helpful diagram illustrates the project’s visual, hierarchical, and deliverable-oriented deconstruction and is a valuable resource for project managers. It breaks down the structure of all the work that must be done, starting with the primary overarching objective and working down to the minor deliverables.

On the other hand, the work breakdown schedule features the start and completion dates for every task, activity, and deliverable defined in the WBS.

The Levels of a Work Breakdown Structure

Basically, every level is supported by successive levels. This typically results in a branching chart, flowing downward from the final deliverable and considering all the necessary tasks, activities, and deliverables that must be performed to finish the project.

Work breakdown structures typically consist of these levels:

  • Top-Level. The final deliverable sits at the top of the diagram. It can also be the project title.
  • Controls account. The second level features the different phases of the main project. These are secondary deliverables that must be finished to ensure a successful project.
  • Work packages. The work packages lie under the controls-account level, identifying the necessary tasks for the secondary deliverables.
  • Activities. The final level is composed of activities that facilitate the work packages. Additionally, this level uses milestones to address risk and uncertainty.

Other level configurations are available, such as a three-tiered structure covering the project objective, dependencies and tasks, and sub-dependencies.

Work Breakdown Structure Formats

There are three basic work breakdown structure formats.

  • Flowcharts. Flowcharts are great for showing sequential workflows and are phased-based, responsibility-based, or deliverable-based.
  • Spreadsheets. Spreadsheets have more room and can accommodate details, data, highlight dependencies, etc. They are ideal for complex projects.
  • Outlines. Outlines are typically text-based and contain a hierarchical list of tasks or to-dos. Outlines are helpful for smaller, basic projects.

The Types of Work Breakdown Structure

There are three types of WBS work breakdown structures.

1) Deliverable-based. This type visualizes the relationship between project deliverables (e.g., a service or product) and the job’s scope. Deliverable-based WBSs break down the project’s scope into control accounts, dividing the scope into project work packages and tasks.

2) Phase-based. This type usually breaks down the initial level into five elements (initiation, planning, execution, control, and closeout). Each element is a different phase in the project. It then identifies the deliverables within those phases.

Here is a chart showing a deliverable-based work breakdown structure example using a scenario involving building a house.

construction of house

This chart shows a work breakdown structure example of a phased-based WBS, referencing that same house-building scenario.

house construction

Both charts appear courtesy of workbreakdownstructure.com and clearly illustrate the work breakdown structure in project management.

3) Responsibility-based. A responsibility-based breakdown defines the project’s structure based on teams, individuals, and organizational units that work on the project. While the second level of the structure identifies who is responsible for finishing the tasks, the subsequent levels follow a format similar to the other types, identifying the deliverables that must be finished to move the entire project forward.

Also Read: Complete Guide to the Waterfall Project Management Methodology

WBS Project Management Terminology

Here’s a sample of standard terms used when working with work breakdown schedules.

1) Acceptance Criteria. The criteria are the standards that must be met to satisfy the requirements of the customers or stakeholders.

2) Budget. The budget outlines all expenses linked to the project, which the deliverables or phases can further break down.

3) Control Accounts. Control accounts place work packages into groups and measure their status, controlling the different areas of the project’s scope.

4) Deliverables. The deliverables cover the product, service, or any other results created in the project’s various stages. For example, when used for a website design project, the deliverable-based WBS would include items like the landing page, the URL, layout, images, and written text. They are also known as project deliverables.

5) Milestones. The WBS specifies the project’s critical stages.

6) Phases. The phases are the project’s stages. For example, referencing our website design project, a phase-based WBS would be organized around discovery, design, and launch instead of specific deliverables.

7) Tasks. Tasks comprise work packages and, by extension, the project’s scope. You use your WBS to define each task’s description, requirements, owner, dependencies, status, and duration.

8) WBS Dictionary. The dictionary defines the project’s elements and ensures that everyone clearly understands the terms associated with the project.

9) WBS Levels. The levels define each element’s hierarchy.

10) Work Packages. Work packages comprise the lowest level of the Work Breakdown Structure, consisting of a group of associated tasks small enough to be handled by either a single person or a department.

What Are the Characteristics of a Work Breakdown Structure?

The chief characteristic of the work breakdown structure is its level structure. Work breakdown structures are typically split into three or four levels, depending on the project’s complexity, process, and size.

1) Level Zero. This level is the broadest and describes the scope of the project. In addition, level Zero states the project title and final deliverable. So, if we used the example of the previous charts, its Level Zero could be “Building Our Dream House.”

2) Level One. This level features the control accounts. A control account is defined as a management control point that arranges the work packages and measures their status, controlling every area of the project scope. Control accounts describe the project’s significant parts, systems, phases, or features the client wants you to deliver. Again, harkening back to the house example, Level One breaks down into Foundation, Internal, and External.

3) Level Two. Level Two consists of work packages. Each work package describes what the client or stakeholder will receive when completing the package, but not how the team will fulfill it. When the work packages are brought together, they comprise Level One, the control accounts level. The Internal control account breaks into Electrical and Plumbing with our house example.

4) Level Three. Level Three lists the activities. Completing a set of actions results in completing and delivering an individual work package. So, using the Electrical work package in our house example, Electrical includes the electrician, the budget, and the overall percentage of work.

Work breakdown structures in project management also include the 100% rule, meaning the WBS contains every aspect of the project, including the person or team responsible for delivering the components.

Also Read: Understanding KPIs in Project Management

Why Use a WBS in Project Management?

There are three compelling reasons to use a work breakdown structure in project management.

1) First, the WBS breaks down the project into easy-to-handle, bite-size components. This process makes the task less intimidating and more manageable.

2) Second, it provides a roadmap for the personnel working on the project. Typically, projects involve different teams progressing in tandem, creating a need to coordinate and integrate to complete the work. If a project manager uses a WBS, every individual and group can stay in their lane, focusing on their assigned work while understanding how their contribution fits into the entire project.

3) Finally, it is an excellent tool for identifying milestones, allocating budgets, and ultimately measuring project completion. Project managers can use the 100% rule to confidently ensure that the project is appropriately funded and budgeted and that there won’t be any roadblocks or pitfalls thanks to a “surprise” deliverable.

When you realize the value of a work breakdown structure to a project, it should be considered a given that a project manager will always include one in the process.

How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure

Alright, work breakdown structures are impressive. Great. So, how do you put one together?

Good question! Follow this outline, and you can’t go wrong.

1) Define your project. First, clearly establish the project. Depending on the project’s complexity, this could be a simple statement or a fully fleshed-out definition of the project’s actual scope.

2) Set the project’s boundaries. Next, after you have described and defined the project, set limits on what will be included in the WBS and what won’t be included.

3) Identify the project deliverables. This step should include all high-level deliverables linked to the project, like a Project Scope Statement or a Mission Statement.

4) Define the project’s Level One elements. Remember the 100% rule when creating the Level One deliverables.

5) Break down the Level One elements. Breaking down the project’s Level One elements is called decomposition (okay, not the nicest term, but oh well). Decomposition involves breaking down tasks into smaller pieces while applying the 100% rule at each level. As you reach each subsequent level, ask if further decomposition would contribute constructively to the project’s management. Then, keep breaking down the elements until you arrive at “no.” The WBS is complete once you’ve finished decomposing every element in Level One.

6) Identify your project’s personnel. Identify the individuals and teams responsible for each element.

7) Create a Gantt chart to supplement your WBS. Gantt charts show activities over time, letting you visualize the information related to the project’s schedule and its various activities.

Work Breakdown Structure Best Practices

Keep these practices in mind when developing your WBS in project management.

1) Use the 100% Rule often. This practice is the most critical principle used to construct a WBS. The rule applies to all levels; thus, the sum of a lower level’s work must always match 100% of the work represented by the level above.

2) Use nouns, not verbs. A WBS is about deliverables; you deal more with “what” rather than “how.”

3) Be thorough. An effective one has no blank spots. Provide a complete listing of every task, regardless of its size, that gets you to your goal.

4) Keep the tasks mutually exclusive. In other words, there’s no reason to mess around with work that is already part of a different task.

5) Know when to stop. You can get carried away by breaking down everything in your WBS into subtasks. While it must be detailed, you want to avoid going so deep that you get bogged down in minutiae. Ideally, you should have between three to five levels.

Also Read: Project Management Frameworks and Methodologies Explained

When Should You Use a Work Breakdown Structure?

Here are three often-encountered situations where you need a work breakdown structure.

1) A Scope of Work. The Scope of Work document is an extensive document that explains your project scope, which consists of all the work you must perform. A WBS is a valuable tool to help break down the project scope into easy-to-control work packages. In addition, work breakdown structures allow you to identify deliverables, milestones, and phases with minimal effort.

2) A Statement of Work. Statements of Work are legally binding documents drawn between the organization and the client who orders the work. The statement covers necessary project management, like the deliverables, timeline, and the project’s specific requirements.

3) A Work Order. Work orders closely resemble Statements of Work, with the chief difference being that work orders show the costs associated with every task in the project.

Tips for Making a Work Breakdown Structure

Take note of these tips to make an excellent work breakdown structure.

  • Honor the 100% rule. The work represented by the WBS must include all the work necessary to complete the overarching goal without adding any extraneous or unrelated work. Also, all levels of child tasks must account for all the work needed to complete the parent task.
  • Think outcomes, not actions. Focus on the deliverables and outcomes instead of actions. For example, if you were building a car, a deliverable could be “the braking system,” while actions would include “calibrating the brake pads.”
  • Mutual exclusion. Don’t include sub-tasks or account for any amount of work twice. Doing so violates the 100% rule and results in miscalculations when determining the resources you need to complete a project.
  • There are always three levels. In general, the WBS should include about three detail levels. However, some branches will be more subdivided than others. Still, if most branches have about three levels, your project’s scope and detail level will be about right.
  • Remember the 8/80 rule. This rule is one of the most common project management suggestions: a work package should take between eight and 80 hours. There are several ways to judge when work packages are small enough but not too small. Other rules propose up to ten days (which comes out to 80 hours for a full-time employee) or up to one standard reporting period. Or, to put the latter differently, if you report on your work every month, the work package should take at most a month to finish. Use the “if it makes sense” rule and your best judgment when in doubt.
  • Create assignments. Every work package should be assigned to specific teams or individuals. If you have designed your WBS properly, there won’t be any work overlap, and responsibilities will be clear.

Do You Want to Start a Career in Project Management?

If you’re considering training to become a project manager, Simplilearn, in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts, has an online project management course that gives you the skills you need to master the discipline of project management. This six-month online bootcamp, aligned with PMI-PMP® and IASSC-Lean Six Sigma, features live online classes and capstone projects geared to teaching you essential project management skills like:

  • Agile Management
  • Customer experience design
  • Design Thinking
  • Digital Transformation
  • Leadership Skills
  • Lean Six Sigma Green Belt (LSSGB)
  • Project Management
  • Project Risk Management

Additionally, students can earn 146 PDUs to keep up their CCR for PMI-related certifications. Once completing the bootcamp, students get their certificate and UMass Amherst Alumni Association membership.

According to Indeed.com, project managers working in the United States earn an average of $87,729 annually and can exceed $136K. Join this excellent project management bootcamp and prepare yourself for a new, exciting career in the rewarding field of project management.

FAQ

Q: What is WBS in project management?
A: The WBS is a helpful diagram illustrating any project’s visual, hierarchical, and deliverable-oriented deconstruction, handy for project managers.

Q: What are the types of work breakdown structures?
A: Phase-based, responsibility-based, and delivery-based.

Q: Name the different types of WBS diagrams.
A: Tree diagram, Gantt chart, spreadsheet, and list.

Q: What are the features of work breakdown schedules?
A: The features include:

  • Is a deliverable-oriented grouping of project elements
  • Defines the project’s scope
  • Contains 100 percent of the work as defined by the scope
  • Supplies a textual, graphical, or tabular breakdown of the project’s scope

Q: What is the advantage of a WBS?
A: The advantages are:

  • It facilitates better project planning and control
  • It breaks the project into smaller pieces, letting project managers estimate the time and cost needed to complete each task more accurately
  • It helps ensure the project keeps on track and all project deliverables are accounted for
  • It encourages and promotes communication and collaboration among team members and stakeholders, ensuring everyone stays on the same page when dealing with project goals and timelines.

You might also like to read:

What’s a Requirements Traceability Matrix (RTM), and How Do You Create It?

PMP Requirements and Eligibility for Certification in 2023

The Top 24 Project Management Interview Questions for 22-23

Why Is Project Management a Good Career Choice?

Top 12 Project Management Books You Should Check Out

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