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What Is a Work Breakdown Structure in Project Management?

Work breakdown structure is a good way to get any project off the ground and can often determine the success of a project. That’s why project managers need to learn how to master them. This article will help you understand the work breakdown structure and create one on your own.

Project management is by no means easy. Project managers need to keep up with the pace of the project, manage resources, budgets and teams (both local and geographically dispersed), and they’re constantly faced with challenges that can quickly derail the success of a project. All this can quickly become overwhelming.

The good news is there are multiple project management methods that will help project managers reach their targets effectively. One of the best approaches for complex projects is the work breakdown structure.

What Is Work Breakdown Structure?

Work breakdown structure (WBS) is a project management tool that breaks down a project into a hierarchy of deliverables and tasks. It offers a visual way to all the deliverables as well as tasks and subtasks in a project, ensuring nothing gets overlooked and making it easier to manage all aspects of a project.

WBS is an ideal choice for complex projects that entail numerous steps and tasks as it divides all deliverables into sub-deliverables that are easy to manage. By implementing this system, you can assign a budget and time estimate to each deliverable and make sure that the estimates add up to the total budget.

Elements of a Work Breakdown Structure

Deliverables. The focus of a work breakdown structure is on the deliverables, which means it needs to cover everything required for project completion. Because this is a document that illustrates all the components of the project, nothing should be left out.

Hierarchy. A WBS requires a clear hierarchy of elements. Because the way the system works is backward from the final result, each of the breakdowns implemented create another hierarchy level which can get further broken down into multiple parts.

Level of Detail. Mastering the level of detail needed for a WBS takes practice. Yes, the WBS hierarchy is the cornerstone of the process, but this doesn’t mean that it should be too detailed. Going into too much detail by describing all minor elements is often a waste of time and can make the whole document less comprehensible.

How Is Work Breakdown Structure Different from a Project Plan?

People often use work breakdown structure and project plan interchangeably. However, both serve their own purpose and differ from one another by scope.

A project plan serves as a blueprint for the project. It refers to a formal document that defines exactly how a project is going to be executed and monitored.

On the other hand, a work breakdown structure is decomposition and hierarchical representation of all the work necessary to execute the project. The project is broken into smaller pieces and enables users to focus on the deliverables instead of the project as a whole. With a work breakdown structure, project managers get an uncluttered view of the work that might otherwise get lost in a project plan.

The purpose of work breakdown structure

The primary purpose of WBS in project management is to break down complex projects into more manageable tasks and subtasks to ensure project success. It’s a great way to make sure the entire team knows exactly what they are responsible for and have a good understanding of the deliverables.

Work breakdown structure also presents many benefits:

  • Improved planning. Complex projects are difficult to plan from start to finish, and it’s easy to overlook something in the process. WBS makes it much more manageable by visualizing scope and enabling you to set clear timelines, ensure no tasks get overlooked and understand the resources needed to complete the project within time and budget.
  • More accurate budget allocation. Because all tasks are well-defined, it’s much easier for project managers to assign specific costs to them – ensuring that the cost of the tasks doesn’t exceed project budget.
  • Enhanced visibility. Having all the tasks, timelines, and budgets visualized in the WBS make it easier for everyone to understand their responsibilities and see the project progress.
  • Easier progress tracking. The high level of visibility makes it easy to keep your team members and stakeholders up to date with everything. Moreover, it’s also a great way to identify possible bottlenecks sooner and make sure your project doesn’t go over time and budget.

6 Quick Steps to Create a Work Breakdown Structure

Creating an effective WBS is an excellent way to streamline a project. On the other hand, it can be difficult and take a lot of time, especially for projects with large scopes.

Following these 6 steps below will help you create a good WBS and ensure nothing will fall through the cracks.

1. Create a list of all tasks

Start with a decomposition of a project and create a complete list of all tasks that need to be completed within the project. Keep in mind that this isn’t a job for a project manager alone – gather your entire team for brainstorming or mind-mapping session.

2. Create task clusters

After defining the complete list of tasks, it’s time to cluster them according to the project timeline or subject area. Deciding which tasks are assigned to different clusters depends on the project, and needs to be done on a case-by-case basis.

3. Define work packages

The next step is to summarize clusters in work packages. This is usually done by defining the work packages in the form of headings and organizing them into a hierarchy.

4. Assign responsibilities

After you have defined all the work packages, it’s time to assign responsibilities. Make sure all the assigned team members have the necessary know-how and time to complete the task.

5. Define timelines for the work packages

Once the work packages have been determined and assigned to responsible parties, project managers need to define the start and end dates. To do so, consider where the priorities lie and whether any of the work packages are interdependent.

6. Document the work breakdown structure

The last step of creating a work breakdown structure is documentation. It can be done in multiple ways and depends on the type of project and nature of the team. For example, whiteboards are an excellent option for smaller teams working in the same office. At the same time, distributed teams need to have information available online to assure everyone has a good overview of the project.

Tips for Creating an Effective Work Breakdown Structure

  • High-quality WBS are generally developed in a team – project managers may overlook some elements that are obvious for their team members.
  • The level of detail shouldn’t be too high because this might impair the clarity of the WBS. A good rule of thumb is that when an activity can’t be broken down into two clear sub-activities, it’s enough detail.
  • Another great way to make sure your WBS isn’t too detailed is the 8/80 rule. It entails that a work package or deliverable should take no less than eight hours of effort, but no more than 80.
  • Since WBS is a basis for all further planning, it’s imperative to pay attention to it every step of the way. That’s why a WBS must be presentable on a single page.
  • Deliverable needs to be mutually exclusive, which means no milestones should appear twice within the same work breakdown structure. This is important for eliminating duplicate work, communication issues, and high costs.
  • Every deliverable should be assigned to only one person or team. This way, there will be no overlap, and responsibilities are clear to everyone.
  • Remember that deliverables should be stated in the form of outcomes, not actions.
  • Make your life easier – a good all-in-one solution will provide you with everything you need to create a WBS. This way, you will have all your information available in one place, making it easy to manage multiple projects simultaneously, analyze the results and improve your processes.

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