We’ve all heard that familiar phrase, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
This idea is never more true than when you are starting a new project. It’s tempting to start with big, lofty plans for what you’re going to accomplish. However, without proper planning, you’re left with project delays, exceeded budgets and general chaos.
By using a work breakdown structure in project management (WBS), you can organize and create a system to roll out a new project.
This will make your life easier and keep your team steadily moving toward your (attainable) end goal.
In this article, we’ll look at:
- What is a work breakdown structure (WBS)?
- The benefits of this project management approach
- How it compares to other methods
- How you can get started right now
- Best practices for implementation
- Examples to inspire your own team
Let’s dive in.
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What exactly is a work breakdown structure?
A work breakdown structure in project management is a hierarchical structure of project activity. In simple terms, it’s a list of what needs to be done within a project. It breaks down the tasks to be completed into clear steps, and displays them within a chart or other visible representation so the team can easily see each step of the project.
WBS project management benefits
You may think creating a project plan is sufficient, and that a work breakdown structure is redundant.
While proper project planning is vital, so is a work breakdown structure. Here are a few benefits.
Tasks are completed
Although you have a plan in place, smaller tasks can get overlooked once the project is rolling along.
WBS project management breaks out each of these tasks in a visual manner. The team can see what steps need to be completed and in what order.
This ensures nothing is skipped or forgotten in the process. And on the flipside, no unnecessary steps are added — everything is clearly outlined from the beginning.
Keeps team members accountable
Just like a breakdown structure keeps tasks organized, it also keeps team members organized.
A WBS shows the entire team what tasks need to be completed and in what order.
If you’re using a project management tool like Hubstaff Tasks, you can easily assign these individual tasks to each person, or multiple people at once.
This way, nothing is missed. You can easily see what’s on everyone’s plate, and follow up with the team members responsible if the task missed its deadline.
Since all tasks are visible to the entire team, it’s easy for team members to communicate with one another.
For example, if work needs to be completed on one task before another team member can begin their part, it’s easy to find out what the holdup is.
This open communication brings unforeseen shifts in an established project management lifecycle to the forefront.
The more the team communicates throughout the process, the smoother the project will run.
Work breakdown structures take a project scope and put it to paper.
Since all tasks are accounted for and organized, it provides a clear path for the team.
Although there are always unexpected changes that come up during a project, a detailed and defined WBS can make surprises less destructive.
Helps with budgeting
By breaking a project into small sections as a WBS does, it’s easier to estimate the costs involved.
Since each task is assigned a team member, you’ll easily see how many team members you need. This helps estimate the staff and budget needed.
By looking at the number of tasks, it’s easier to estimate a project deadline based on what needs to be completed along the way.
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Carries out the project plan
If you think about it, a project plan is an outline of a project, but project success really stems from the work breakdown structure.
Your structure is the lifeblood of a project. It helps with everything from resource planning to schedule planning to time estimations.
WBS vs. project plan vs. project schedule
You now know why a WBS is important and a vital step in project management.
However, you still might be wondering how it works with other project management components, such as a project schedule or plan.
As we discussed previously, a WBS takes the tasks needed to be completed from a project plan and breaks these out.
It focuses purely on the project management deliverables. It doesn’t include a time component, predecessors, or dependencies.
A project schedule assigns time constraints to each task and shows dependencies. It also establishes a timeline for the project.
Altogether, your process might look something like this:
- Create your project plan
- Create a work breakdown structure
- Then, you will use these two to create a project schedule.
Creating a WBS before a project schedule will provide an uncluttered view of the tasks before dates and team members are assigned. This will help ensure you have everything accounted for.
How to create a work breakdown structure
There are a few components that every WBS has.
Although, there are different formats you can use depending on what works best for your project and company.
No matter which format you choose, the overall structure should include the following parts.
1. Establish project objective
Take a look at your project plan and use the project objective you’ve established. This should go at the top of your work breakdown structure.
2. Break out the tasks and subtasks
Next, you want to break down the tasks into smaller and smaller tasks.
The point is to focus on the project deliverables. For example, you may have 10 large tasks, but underneath each of these you may have 20 subtasks that need to be completed in order to achieve the larger task.
The goal is to break out these tasks as a way to better meet the project objective.
One way to do this is with a Kanban board. This project management framework allows you to make each subtask its own card, with due dates, a description and team members assigned. These cards belong to a larger project, which you can view all at once as one board.
3. Assign project phases
Depending on how large or complex your project is, you’ll want to establish phases of the project.
This will make it easier to create a project timeline from your WBS.
For example, your phases might be:
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WBS best practices
Now, some words of advice for making your WBS the best possible working document. Here are some WBS best practices to keep in mind.
Think about tasks carefully
You’ll want to spend time thinking about what work needs to be completed.
Use your WBS as a way to organize the most important tasks. Remove any tasks that seem unnecessary or unrelated.
Also, look at your main tasks. Can each subtask fully meet the needs of the main tasks?
List tasks once
If you have a complex project, it’s easy to start listing a bunch of tasks without looking at it from a high level.
Step back and make sure you are only listing each task once.
You don’t want to clutter your process or confuse your team members with two people doing the same or redundant work.
Focus on deliverables
The point of a WBS is to focus on outcomes and not the actions needed to meet those deliverables.
For example, if you were building a car, you would list tire pressure control system and not create proper tire pressure in each tire.
Don’t go too small
Think attainable and realistic when creating subtasks.
In other words, subtasks should take no longer than 80 hours to complete, or 10 days.
A work package should take no longer than a month to complete. When you go through your project tasks make sure they are doable in a reasonable timeframe and they are not broken out too much, either.
Trying to take on too much or too little will lead to incomplete or subpar projects.
Create project phases
Projects range in size and complexity.
However, if you create at least three project phases, you will better organize the project and the team.
For example, these phases may be called the initiation phase, planning stage, and execution phase.
Assign team members
Once you have a work breakdown structure created, assign each team member the tasks and subtasks.
There should be no overlap or missed tasks, and one team member should be accountable for the main tasks. That person takes ownership, and can check to see if all subtasks are completed on time.
Work breakdown structure templates for project management
There are several work breakdown structure options to get you started. Choose the one that works best for keeping your team on task and organized.
Download your own WBS structure template
The tree structure is a more visual option. Just like the name suggests, you start with a main objective and branch out to three or four sub-objectives to meet the overall project goal.
Then, you create more and more subtasks to complete each sub-objective. This WBS can be created in Microsoft Word or a chart design program.
The outline view is just what it sounds like.
You start with the main objective, list sub-objectives and then list tasks to be completed in order under each project phase.
This is a good option if you need to make changes throughout the project. Items can easily be shifted around. The outline view can be created in Microsoft Word.
The hierarchical structure is a lot like the outline view, but doesn’t include indentation.
This view may be harder to read, but it makes more sense if you have a complex project.
Indentation in the outline view takes up space and requires a larger document when you have multiple project levels.
This hierarchical structure can be created in Microsoft Excel.
The tabular view is another work breakdown structure in project management that can be created in Microsoft Excel.
It lists project phases in levels with level one being the project objectives, level two being the main phases, and level three being the subtasks.
Perfecting your work breakdown structure
Spending time crafting the ideal project plan and assessing the risk management in project management are critical components of any project roll out.
But don’t forget to spend time creating the ideal work breakdown structure. Not only will it ensure all tasks are completed by the team on time, but you’ll uncover unforeseen issues before they derail your project.
The more you can plan and organize your project, the better the end result will be for your team and the company.