We are continuing our column on the different tools that will help you improve your project management practices. Today, we are going to focus on work breakdown structures (WBS) and how this visual tool is essential for your project’s success.

This article will help you understand what a WBS is, why project managers should use it and how to create one by following 7 simple steps.

What is a WBS?

The work breakdown structure is a project management classic, it’s a visual tool that’s used in the planning phase of the project. It allows project managers to break down or divide the project into more manageable parts and gives priority to the deliverables required to complete the project.

One thing to keep in mind, the WBS focuses on the WHAT of the project (deliverables) not HOW you're going to complete the project. It’s everything the project manager and the project team needs to accomplish for the project that’s presented in a easy to understand table or tree diagram.

Why use a WBS?

The work breakdown structure is the foundation for project planning and scheduling.

According to Discenza, R. & Forman, J. B. (2007), inadequate planning is one of the major reasons why projects spin out of control. Project managers must have a detailed plan developed before any release date of a project is announced. If you don’t want your projects to fail then you have to have a consistent methodology for planning and executing projects.

The WBS ensures the success of your projects by helping you better understand and manage the project scope as well as efficiently communicate the scope to the project stakeholders. The WBS makes this possible by breaking down the key deliverables that are required to make your project successful.

There are many benefits to using a WBS :

  • Understand the Project Scope

The WBS helps to better understand your project scope early on by providing all project stakeholders a clear representation of the work required to complete the project successfully. By using a WBS the project manager will define what is included and not included in the project scope. That way the project manager can focus on what really needs to be done to complete the project successfully, otherwise you could be wasting a lot of time working on activities that are not directly aligned with your scope.

  • Stay On Track

The WBS ensures that your team is headed in the right direction, because they are focused on the end goals, they have a better idea of what is expected on them. Moreover, the WBS gives your teams a clear description of each task or work package they are assigned to that way there is no confusion on what needs to be done.  

  • Facilitate Work Allocation

The WBS will help managers efficiently distribute responsibilities. Since the work required is broken down into smaller more manageable parts, project managers can quickly and easily assign work to the right person.

  • Improve Project Planning

The WBS helps you plan better and faster, once you have your WBS it will be much easier for you to identify and define the project's activities. It also provides a way to estimate project costs accurately. Bottom-up estimating is one of the most accurate methods, because you broke down the project into smaller parts, you will be able to better estimate the cost, time and risk of each component. 

  • Deliver Your Project On Time & Within Budget

By using a WBS the project manager will gain complete visibility over the progress of your project. This way you can easily track the status and progress of each component in the WBS. With that being said, the WBS will help project managers avoid missing deadlines and exceeding budgets. 

  • Improve Communication

This tool provides information regarding the project scope, the deliverables, the hierarchy of the project work, the work packages that are completed and yet to be completed. All these important factors that contribute to your project's success are easily communicated to all project stakeholders. The WBS facilitates communication and coordination between the project manager, his team and all the other stakeholders.  

  • Improve Project Reporting

The WBS enables the project manager to monitor, measure and control many aspects of the project. Thanks to the WBS, the project manager will gain global visibility over the progress and status of each deliverable and its components. 

  • Mitigate Risks

Risk is mitigated early on when creating a WBS. Since you're creating a WBS before any of the work has been carried out, you are reducing the risk of your project failing by clearly identifying all the tasks that are required to complete the project. You and your team members will be able to anticipate areas of risk and account for them. 

  • Improve Future Projects

A WBS can be used for future similar projects. You will learn from what went well and what went wrong, preventing the project manager and project team from repeating the same mistakes over and over again. It will also help project managers predict results based on various scenarios and make better estimates with the data found in the WBS. 

If you want to learn more about work breakdown structures, we suggest looking into Liliana Buchtik's Secrets to Mastering the WBS in Real World Projects - Second Edition.

How to create a WBS?

Now that you understand the purpose of a WBS, here’s how to actually create one. 

With help of our free template you'll be able to build these two types of work breakdown structures:

1. Tree Structure

Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 11.28.06 


2. Tabular View

Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 11.27.44

Step 1 - Get your inputs

Before you create your WBS, you will need several inputs to get you started the right way.

According to the PMBOK guide, the WBS inputs consists of:

  • Project Scope Statement: a detailed description of the project deliverables and the work needed to create them.
  • Statement of Requirements: a detailed description of what will be delivered.
  • Organizational Process Assets:  a document that includes the organization's policies, procedures, guidelines, templates, plans, lessons learned from previous projects.
  • Project scope management plan: a document that will help understand how to deal with changes to the project’s scope. This document is important because these changes can impact your deliverables. 

These inputs will provide you with everything you and your team need to create your WBS.

Step 2 - Gather your team & stakeholders to create the WBS

The second step is to identify who will help you create the WBS.

In this case, it’s your team members and the appropriate stakeholders. Remember, the WBS is a collaborative part of the planning process. You will need your team members knowledge and experience to create an efficient WBS. For example, they can help you produce a list of all the activities that are required to complete the project. 

Your WBS will be more effective if you create it with those who will be performing it.  

Step 3 - Determine the WBS approach and representation

You have to determine how you’re going to structure your WBS. There isn’t one right way of creating a WBS. It’s important to adapt the WBS depending on each project and the needs of your organisation. You could choose to create your WBS by focusing on deliverables, project phases, or even departments.

In our excel template, we used the deliverable approach.

Then, you’ll have to determine how you are going to represent the WBS: as a table, a hierarchical chart or an outline.

In our excel template we have provided you with two different representations: tree diagram & table.

Here's an example of a Tree structure: 

Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 11.14.33

Here's an example of a Tabular view: 

Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 11.16.32

Step 4 - Define the main deliverables and levels

In this step, you will have to define the main project deliverables and then break them down into components. Then decompose the WBS into levels. 

A good WBS will have three levels, even though it's possible to add more sub-levels for very complex projects.

The first level will be your whole project, and the second level consists of all the deliverables required to complete your project. 

For the third level, you will break down the deliverables into smaller parts of work that need to be completed. These are referred to as work packages, they are the lowest level of the WBS and are assigned to a team member.

One thing to keep in mind, the rule of them for work packages is that they shouldn’t take less than 8 hours to complete or more than 80 hours to complete. The 8/80 rule only applies to work packages because they are the elements that are going to be assigned to a team member and assigned a time estimate.

Step 5 - The 100% rule

This is one of the most important steps in creating your WBS. This rule was created by Gregory Haugan and states that:

“The WBS includes 100% of the work defined by the project scope and captures ALL deliverables in terms of work to be completed including project management. The 100% rule is one of the most important principles guiding the development, decomposition and evaluation of the WBS. The rule applies at all levels within the hierarchy: the sum of the work at the "child" level must equal 100% of the work represented by the "parent" and the WBS should not include any work that falls outside the actual scope of the project, that is, it cannot include more than 100% of the work… It is important to remember that the 100% rule also applies to the activity level. The work represented by the activities in each work package must add up to 100% of the work necessary to complete the work package".

The 100% rule is essential to disregard work that doesn’t contribute to the deliverables or to ensure that there aren’t any duplicates. To do that, you have to make sure that the sum of all elements in the WBS adds up to 100% of the project.

The first two levels should include 100% of the work stated in the project scope. For optimal result, we suggest applying the 100% to all sub-levels.

Step 6 - Numbering Scheme

Once you have defined the work and components in your WBS, you have to assign each component a number. The number can be referred to as a WBS ID, they represent where each deliverable, component and work package is placed in the WBS structure. 

In the 1st level, your WBS ID should start with the number 1, the following components are numbered sequentially (for example, 1.1 for the first sub-level item, and 1.1.1 for the first sub-sub-level item).

Step 7 - WBS Dictionary 

Once you’ve created your WBS, the next step is to create a WBS dictionary, it’s a document describing each element of the WBS. It helps project teams better understand each work package.

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Next steps

Your WBS is done!

Now that you've created your WBS you can start scheduling your project.

Tips to produce an efficient WBS

According to Paul Burek, here are the guidelines you should keep in mind to produce an effective WBS:

  • Use nouns, not verbs, to keep the focus on deliverables versus activities to create the deliverables
  • Use a hierarchy structure to illustrate the relationship of deliverable for the scope of the project
  • Build the WBS collaboratively with the people who will ultimately produce the project deliverables
  • Ensure each WBS leg contains deliverables that are unique from deliverables in another leg – we don't want to repeat the same deliverable in each column
  • Never make assumptions that stakeholders will naturally know that a deliverable element is part of the project even if it is not included in the WBS.
  • Follow the 100% rule when drilling down through the levels of the WBS. The 100% rule states that every level of decomposition in the WBS must contain all of the deliverable elements, which represent 100% of its parent deliverable.

Improve your project management practices with excel

Here are other articles that will help you improve your project management practices with Excel:

1. How to Create a Capacity Planning Graph in Excel?

2. Excel Template: How to Create A TimeSheet in Excel?

3. How to Create A Pivot Table in Excel?

4. Project Schedule Template: How to Create A Project Schedule in Excel?