All about work breakdown structures

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Create a professional-quality work breakdown structure with help from our WBS software. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about work breakdown structures, including how to use them and how to create an effective WBS.
 

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What is a work breakdown structure?

A work breakdown structure is a project management tool used to define and manage a project’s deliverables. The WBS is a hierarchical structure that breaks down complex activities into more manageable parts, allowing users to see the individual deliverables that need to be completed in order to reach a project’s overarching goal. 

While most project management tools focus on planned actions, a WBS focuses on planned outcomes. A carefully organized WBS can help a project manager more effectively oversee the completion of otherwise complicated tasks within a project. A WBS with measurable, clearly defined tasks can also help project management assign accurate costs and deadlines to a project, simplifying project planning and monitoring. 
 

Elements of a good work breakdown structure

Constructed thoughtfully, a WBS can make it easy to assign and track various elements in a project. 
An WBS should exhibit the following attributes to maximize its effectiveness:

  • Defined: Your WBS should be easily understood by project participants and stakeholders.
  • Easily estimated: Task durations, cost, and required resources can be included to estimate the cost and time necessary to complete the project.
  • Manageable: Specific responsibilities are clearly assigned to individuals, making them easy to manage. 
  • Measurable: A WBS should include start and completion dates and assessable milestones so that progress can be accurately measured.
  • Flexible: Your structure should be able to accommodate minor changes, such as changes in deadlines or the addition of tasks. However, keep in mind that one purpose of the work breakdown structure is to give a full picture of the deliverables expected beforehand to avoid scope creep or rework.

Follow these guidelines to ensure that your work breakdown structure is an effective project management tool:

  • Get granular. Break down your project deliverables to their lowest level possible and express the task in verb form.
  • Check your WBS for accuracy. Ensure that all of your deliverables, deadlines, and resources are correctly recorded in your visual.
  • Include supporting activities. Make sure that your WBS takes into account activities such as training and testing, as well as product or service launches and implementation. Include non-IT and procedural work activities such as documentation and reviews in your work structure.
  • Check work packages. Create your work packages to be completely independent of other work packages. Make sure that individual tasks are not duplicated across your structure. 
     

Types of work breakdown structures

There are two types of work breakdown structures commonly employed in project management: the process-oriented WBS and deliverable-oriented WBS. Contrary to popular belief, both structures can (and should) be used when defining your project scope. Used in tandem, they can offer unique and valuable insights into the project management process.

Process-oriented work breakdown structure

A process-oriented WBS defines a project in terms of steps, work phases, or functions. This type of WBS is focused on the steps that need to be taken within individual disciplines to complete a project and typically phrases individual elements in verb form.

The benefit of using a process-oriented WBS in tandem with your deliverables-oriented WBS is that it provides a thorough breakdown of work from a functional perspective, creating a more coherent project scope. It can also be used to ensure that high-quality processes are set in place throughout your project.

Types of work breakdown structures

Deliverables-oriented work breakdown structure

A deliverables-oriented WBS defines a project in terms of tangible deliverable components. Deliverables are typically a physical component or item needed to complete the overall project.

A deliverables-oriented WBS is particularly useful in helping project managers see the total scope of a project and how each deliverable is related to one another. They can also provide a natural summary of work for various management levels, which can provide more accurate cost and resource estimations.

Types of work breakdown structure 2

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Who uses work breakdown structures?

Work breakdown structures can be used in a variety of settings to ensure an organized and successful project.

In addition to helping project managers, a work breakdown structure can benefit users in the following roles:

Account directors: Account directors can use a WBS as a tool to demonstrate to clients how a project is progressing, including highlighting project roadblocks. They can also be used to ensure that account teams and clients are on the same page concerning project deliverables. 

Event planners: With all of the moving parts associated with events, a WBS can be used to efficiently track the tasks and subtasks associated with event production. Events are typically produced on tight deadlines, making a work breakdown particularly useful.

Software developers: Software development is often broken down into stages and phases, which makes the WBS a natural fit. A WBS can provide valuable visibility across teams as important deliverables are completed, ensuring an efficient workflow.

Commercial project managers: Commercial projects are particularly dependent on the delivery of tangible project components. When the project involves multiple contractors, a WBS can serve to highlight task dependencies between teams to ensure that deliverables are completed on time. 

How to create a work breakdown structure

List out deliverables: Make a list of all of the major deliverables required to complete your project. Clear up any confusion about your deliverables before recording them, and have your list reviewed by different stakeholders to ensure its accuracy.

Break down each deliverable into separate components: Identify the related components that go into your major project deliverables. You can divide them up based on task type or role. There’s no limit to how many components you can have, so be as thorough as possible. 

Break each component down into work packages: Break down each component until you’ve reached a single task that can be completed by a single individual. Your work project should include its own budget, resources, milestones, and deadline. 

Identify dependencies: Make sure you’re clear on when individual tasks need to be completed and what tasks must be completed for others to begin. This will help your team identify potential risks and manage time efficiently.

Prioritize dependencies and assign work packages: Once your dependencies are clearly identified, map out your individual work packages based on priority. Assign each work package to the correct individual, working your way up to major deliverables.

Work breakdown structure examples

Take a look at the following work breakdown structure examples below. Click to modify and use them to customize them for your project needs.

Work breakdown structure template

In this basic template, each manufacturing deliverable is clearly broken down into concrete deliverables, making it clear what must be done in order for the final project to be completed.

Work breakdown structure template



Functional decomposition template

This template depicts a top-down illustration of the overall project, with tasks divided into major categories of work and then broken down into smaller work packages.

Work break down structure template 2



Risk breakdown structure template

This WBS identifies, categorizes, and breaks down the potential risks associated with different areas of a project.

Work breakdown structure template 3


Lucidchart’s user-friendly visual workspace helps you visualize every step of your project with organized, professional work breakdown structures. Easily build, update, share, and collaborate on your WBS with cloud-based functionality that gives you and your team access from anywhere. Lucidchart makes it easier than ever to plan your entire project and track your progress, keeping your entire team aligned as you go.

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