What is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)?
Updated: Nov 16
One of the tools that project managers use to help them manage their projects better and more efficiently is a work breakdown structure (WBS).
You might have heard the term work breakdown structure and had questions about how you could implement it on your next project.
We’ll define a WBS, the types, and its elements and show you how to implement one to take control of your next project.
What is Work Breakdown Structure?
According to the Project Manager Institute’s PMBOK Guide, Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is “a deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team.”
There are two styles of WBS: deliverable-based and phase-based.
A deliverable-based WBS starts by breaking down the project into the major areas required by the overall project scope as control accounts. It then divides those into project deliverables and work packages.
A phase-based WBS displays the final deliverable on the top, with the next level down showing the five phases of a project.
The five phases of a project are:
Just like a deliverable-based WBS, the project phases are divided into project deliverables and work packages.
Elements of a WBS
Your typical project WBS structure is composed of several vital elements.
A WBS dictionary is a master document that contains and defines the various elements of the project. It’s a vital component of the WBS because it lets project participants and stakeholders understand the WBS terminology of the project with clarity.
Common fields in a WBS dictionary include:
A good task description has the task name and a brief description of the objective of the task. Unfortunately, your WBS won’t have enough space to display a full description. Still, you can add those additional details to your WBS library.
Your objective for the task description is to have one that team members can easily recognize in the shortest possible way.
Including the assigned task owner in the WBS is critical for communication and accountability. The easier it is for people to find answers to questions, the more quickly your team can complete the task.
Project managers are often task owners, but department heads and managers can also be owners depending on the type of task.
By assigning task owners, you can improve the productivity of a project as stakeholders will quickly know the appropriate person to direct their questions.
You might not need a task budget on every project, but you should closely track the ones with larger budgets.
You may want to assign specific task budget caps to track them easily and see if you are sticking close to the allocated budget for the task.
If you don’t track your budget, you could spend more than was budgeted, which can start cutting your profit margins. Therefore, you’ll want to ensure that you track your overall budget and the budget for individual tasks.
If starting a project with the end in mind is an excellent way to plan your project, then having a completion date is critical. However, it would be best if you were prepared for changes to your desired completion date.
To properly track progress, it’s essential to be able to track each task using a timeline or another project management tool. This task tracking will give you the visibility needed to catch delays in your timeline in real-time to prevent them from stacking up and causing delays in the overall project.
An essential part of timeline tracking is logging the task status of a project for at-a-glance project checks. Even simple terms like open, in-progress, and incomplete can help give you a high-level overview of your team’s productivity.
When you see patterns appear in select teams, that might indicate an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. You can communicate with your team to find issues early on before they become more significant problems.
Create a WBS Structure in Six Steps
Here are six steps you can use to create your own WBS structure.
1. Define Your Project Scope, Goals, and Objectives
The project goals set the rules for defining the scope of your project. Use your project charter to document the project scope, team members, goals, and objectives.
2. Identify Your Project Phases and Control Accounts
You’ll next want to break down the overall project scope into smaller phases that can take it from conception to completion. Control accounts are handy for breaking things down into different, trackable categories.
3. Create a List of Project Deliverables
Your project deliverables are what needs to be done for the project to be completed, including sub-deliverables, work packages, resources, and participants.
4. Set Your WBS Levels
The WBS levels are the heart of the WBS structure. Start at the final project deliverable and consider all the deliverables and work packages you’ll need to get to that point from the beginning.
5. Create Your Work Packages
Once you have your deliverables created, break them down into the tasks and sub-tasks you’ll need to complete the project. Then group those tasks and subtasks into work packages.
6. Choose The Owners of Your Tasks
With tasks and work packages completed, it’s time to assign them to your team. Use your project management skills and tools to get the job done!
Use a WBS Structure to Improve Your Project Management
A WBS structure is a powerful tool that can help you hierarchically organize your projects.
Depending on the size and scope of your project, you can use a deliverable-based WBS or a phase-based WBS. A deliverable-based is better suited for smaller, less complex projects. On the other hand, a phase-based WBS is perfect for complicated projects and takes longer to complete.
Using a WBS takes a lot of the guesswork out of project management. It can provide you with high-level and granular access to your project’s performance so you can resolve issues before they become big problems.