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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 needing doing, 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 that sets out to accomplish so much that you need to 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, the characteristics of the work breakdown structure, and other helpful information.

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 third edition of The Project Management Institute’s PMBOK® Guide. According to the guide, 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. It organizes and defines the total scope of the project. Each descending level represents an increasingly detailed definition of the project work. The WBS is decomposed into work packages. The deliverable orientation of the hierarchy includes both internal and external deliverables.”

The shorter version: the WBS is a helpful diagram illustrating any project’s visual, hierarchical, and deliverable-oriented deconstruction, handy for project managers. The WBS 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.

The Types of Work Breakdown Structure

There are two types of WBS work breakdown structures.

1) Deliverable-based. This WBS 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 WBS 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

And 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.

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 project’s critical stages as specified by the WBS.

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

9) WBS Levels. WBS levels define the WBS element’s hierarchy.

10) Work Packages. Work packages make up 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 leveled 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 make up Level One, the control accounts level. With our house example, the Internal control account breaks down into Electrical and Plumbing.

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.

Why Use a WBS in Project Management?

There are three compelling reasons to use a WBS 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, the WBS 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 get the work done. 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, the WBS 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 a WBS in the process.

How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure

Alright, so 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 consists of 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.” Once you’ve finished decomposing every element in Level One, the WBS is complete.

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 WBS 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. WBS is about deliverables; you deal more with “what” rather than “how.”

3) Be thorough. An effective WBS 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 the WBS 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.

How to Use the Wrike in Your Work Breakdown Structure

If you use Wrike as a work breakdown structure tool, you can create folders and subfolders easily and then go even further by dividing these into tasks and subtasks. You can use Wrike to assign each task in the WBS to the right team members, then set the deliverable’s completion due dates.

Work Breakdown Structure Software

And speaking of work breakdown structure tools, many WBS software offerings are available to make your job easier. Here’s a sample of five excellent WBS tools.

1) Creately

2) EdrawMax

3) GanttPRO

4) Lucidchart

5) WBS Schedule Pro

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.

Do You Want to Start a Career in Project Management?

If you’re considering training to become a project manager, UMass Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management 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:

1) Agile Management

2) Customer experience design

3) Design Thinking

4) Digital Transformation

5) Leadership Skills

6) Lean Six Sigma Green Belt (LSSGB)

7) Project Management

8) 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 membership in the UMass Amherst Alumni Association.

According to Indeed.com, project managers working in the United States earn $83,965 on average per year and can exceed $131K. Join this excellent project management bootcamp and prepare yourself for a new, exciting career in the rewarding field of project management.

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