One of the first major projects that I worked on ran over time and budget for a simple reason. The team jumped straight into the work without planning the tasks needed to deliver our requirements.
In short, we did not create a work breakdown structure (WBS).
A work breakdown structure is an outline of key project deliverables and the work needed to get there. The WBS is key to project planning and increases visibility once work gets underway.
Keep reading for practical tips to create your WBS to get tasks under control!
What is a Work Breakdown Structure?
The WBS is used to organize the work into manageable sections, often measured in time, for example, two weeks.
The list starts with the required deliverables. This goal is further broken down into work packages and tasks needed to reach this objective.
The WBS helps to identify key milestones needed for a successful project.
Depending on the project, your management process, and organizational requirements, the WBS is often accompanied by:
- The WBS dictionary, which describes the deliverables and tasks in more detail.
- A scope baseline, which contains the Project Statement, the WBS, and the WBS dictionary.
How do I use Work Breakdown Structure?
Creating a WBS is an essential part of project planning. Spending time figuring out milestones and task helps to:
- Ensure all tasks are accounted for.
- Estimate time, resources, and budget requirements.
- Assign resources to relevant tasks.
- Identify any tasks that should be outsourced.
- Find dependencies between milestones and tasks that pose a risk to the project.
By focusing on the bigger picture, the WBS ensures that no element of the project is overlooked during the planning phase.
Once the project is underway, the WBS acts as a roadmap, helping the team to deliver the original requirements. The project sponsor can consult the WBS to gauge the project’s progress and decide if any adjustments are needed.
The WBS can reduce scope creep. Got a new request from a stakeholder? Check your WBS to see how this new idea will impact on the timeline and resource allocations.
How to Create Your Project Work Breakdown Structure
A WBS can take many forms – a list in Word or Excel; notes on a whiteboard; a SharePoint task list. The final output can be a text list, a table, or a hierarchical graph.
The images below show a simple WBS created in PowerPoint and a more detailed list built using our free SharePoint template.
Check if your organization or project management software has any existing templates that you can use. You should also incorporate terminology commonly used in your organization, for example, task or work package.
Once you have decided how to create your WBS, it’s time to plan the relevant information.
- Start with the final outcome of the project and work backward to the first main task required to deliver this objective. In this instance, procurement is the final outcome for the project, which means the team needs to work through three suppliers and so on.
- Next, break each milestone down in a similar way. Avoid counting the same work twice under different milestones as this will skew your estimates and costings.
- Repeat this step with each element until the project is broken into its various components.
- Estimate timings for work packages. These typically last between 1-10 days.
- Assign task owners – ideally one owner per task.
- Start mapping your WBS in the desired format.
It’s important to reflect on the WBS to ensure that nothing has been overlooked. Ask your team for their input and feedback, and make adjustments as needed.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2016 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness