Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a tool that organizes team’s work into manageable sections. It is a deliverable oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team. It breaks the project scope into manageable chunks that is understandable by the project team. Each level of work to be performed is broken down so everyone knows his/her role in the project. An easy way to visualize the WBS is to see it as an outline of the project.

The work breakdown structure is usually created by the project manager. The project manager identifies the functional deliverables and subdividing those deliverables into smaller systems and sub-deliverables. These sub-deliverables are further decomposed until a single person can be assigned. This chunk is referred to as the work packages. A work package refers to the list of tasks or to-do-lists to produce a specific unit of work.

The work breakdown structure has several benefits in addition to defining and organizing the project work. A project budget can be allocated to the top levels of the

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work breakdown structure, and department budgets can be quickly calculated based on each project’s work breakdown structure. By allocating time and cost estimates to specific sections of the work breakdown structure, a project schedule and budget can be quickly developed. As the project executes, specific sections of the work breakdown structure can be tracked to identify project cost performance and identify issues and problem areas in the project organization.

Project work breakdown structures can also be used to identify potential risks in a given project. If a work breakdown structure has a branch that is not well defined, then it represents a scope definition risk. These risks should be tracked in a project log and reviewed as the project executes. By integrating the work breakdown structure with an organizational breakdown structure, the project manager can also identify communication points and formulate a communication plan across the project organization.

The following guidelines should be considered when creating a work breakdown structure:

  • The top level represents the final deliverable or project
  • Sub-deliverables contain work packages that are assigned to a organization’s department or unit
  • All elements of the work breakdown structure don’t need to be defined to the same level
  • The work package defines the work, duration, and costs for the tasks required to produce the sub-deliverable
  • Work packages should not exceed 10 days of duration
  • Work packages should be independent of other work packages in the work breakdown structure
  • Work packages are unique and should not be duplicated across the work breakdown structure

Use the right tool for the right task!

Read more on project management:

Characteristics of a good project report

Program tools


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