Your Quick Start Guide to Work Breakdown Structure

Work breakdown structure, or WBS, is a system of organization for project management. It’s a specific method of breaking down large or complicated goals into manageable objectives. 

WBS is for project managers that want to plan, schedule, and budget for each component of their project in a way that is complete but not overly detailed, easy to track and follow for the duration of project, and makes it simple to communicate their progress and needs. 

Work Breakdown Structure

If you want to learn everything there is to know about WBS, the Project Management Institute (PMI) has hours, days, and weeks of information for you. You can get started with the nearly official WBS book is sixty-three dollars and, if we are being totally honest, a bit dense. For example, compare the definition above to the book definition below. 

“A WBS is a hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be carried out by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.

Is the book more detailed, descriptive, and accurate than this article? Yes. 

Is the book a quick read that can be immediately implemented for that project you need to manage right now? No and no. 

Sometimes, it’s better to start with the quick-start guide than the full user manual. That’s what this article is for.

If you need a quick introduction to WBS before diving into some more intense literature, are desperately looking for a way to get your chaos in order, or fall anywhere in between, this article will help you understand what WBS is, why you should use it, and how. 

A Simple Work Breakdown Structure Example

Project managers in just about any field can use WBS to reach their goals, but for the purpose of this article, let’s use a universal example. 

Moving. 

Most of us reading this article have moved from one home to another. It’s a pain. There are a lot of different types of tasks that go into a successful move, and at the end of it, you have to be entirely out of one place and completely settled in the next one. Writing the tasks involved in moving from one rental to another, the list is long and overwhelming like this:

  • Shop for a new place to live
  • Submit an application and fee
  • Pay a deposit
  • Sign a lease
  • Notify your landlord you will be moving out
  • Throw a going away party
  • Transfer your renters insurance
  • Turn on the utilities in the new home
  • Turn off the utilities in the current home
  • Change your mailing address and forward your mail
  • Secure a mode of transportation to move your belongings
  • Pack everything, breakdown furniture
  • Coerce your friends to help you move all of your belongings into a moving truck
  • Repair walls, paint and clean
  • Turn in your old keys
  • Pick up the new keys
  • Move everything inside the new home
  • Unpack 

You may be thinking, “Wait, there’s more!” or maybe, “Some of those tasks have multiple parts” and you are correct. This checklist is long, unorganized, and doesn’t cover everything that needs to happen—not even close. 

Writing each and every task in a checklist is a solid way to make sure everything gets done. However, a list alone won’t account for dependencies between tasks, how much work and resources each task needs, and consequently doesn’t give a clear picture of the totality of the project. 

A WBS is a way to solve these problems. One by one, we’ll go over the best practices for creating a WBS in project management, broken down by how each one better organizes your project. 

WBS Project Management is All About Hierarchy

Think back to the moving checklist. Some of these tasks depend on others, meaning, they can’t be completed until other tasks have been completed first. For example, you’ll probably load your furniture in the moving truck before you turn in the keys, therefore, turning in your keys is dependent on being out of the apartment. 

These dependencies will begin to shape a hierarchy of tasks. However, dependencies are not the only factor that matters. 

Let’s say you were to write your moving checklist in order of dependencies. Loading the moving truck would come before turning in the keys, but when should you turn on the utilities in the new place? Would that come before or after turning in your keys? Or how about simultaneously? 

Organize Your Moving Day with WBS

A WBS will organize work into a hierarchy of two to four levels considering both dependencies between tasks and simultaneous parts. 

First level items are larger goals, and within each larger goal, a second level of dependent tasks are grouped. This hierarchy can go on as much as needed. 

In the moving example, the first level of tasks might be: 

  1. Secure a new apartment
  2. Transfer belongings
  3. Close out old apartment

Under each of these first level items, we can arrange their dependent tasks. 

  1. Secure a new apartment
    1. Pay deposit
    2. Sign lease
      1. Turn in application and associated documents
    3. Turn on utilities
      1. Begin mail forward
      2. Call electric company
  2. Transfer belongings
  3. Close out old apartment

This is how you begin creating a WBS, but it’s not the end of WBS. There are still a few critical factors that make this system work. 

List Deliverables, Not Actions

If you are familiar with WBS, you may have noticed an error in the above hierarchy: each item was listed as a verb. 

It’s common to think of to-do lists as actions, “Do this” and “do that.”

WBS is different. Rather than prescribing a method or process, a WBS is described in deliverables. Look at how this changes our list. 

1. Secure a new apartment1. New apartment secured
2. Transfer belongings2. Belongings transferred
3. Close out previous apartment3. Previous apartment closed

A deliverable is any product, service, or achievement of specific objectives or attainment of goals. It’s the reason why you do something, not how you do it. 

By listing deliverables instead of actions, you gain more flexibility in the process of how each task is done. In a traditional project management setting, this allows your team to be more agile and frees you from micromanaging. As the project manager, it is more important that the furniture is transferred than planning exactly how it is loaded in the truck. This means that the friends helping you move will be able to judge how best Tetris your belongings, while you have more time to manage the bigger picture. 

Sometimes, you may want to include notes about how to accomplish the deliverable. When notes are needed, include them in what is called a “work package” attached to the corresponding deliverable. The work package should be readily available on an attachment, link, or supplementary page, but not necessarily visible when you view your WBS. 

For the deliverable of loading the truck, the work package may include notes about what is fragile,instructions for driving to your new apartment, and the code to get through the gate. 

A WBS Should Total 100% of Your Budget and Resources

When you begin organizing your to-do list into a hierarchy of deliverables, make sure each item is mutually exclusive. There should be no overlap between one deliverable and another. 

These boundaries prevent duplicate work and make it possible to plainly allocate resources. 

During the planning process, you likely know how many people are on your team, what your budget is, and so on. These resources are divided up between the mutually exclusive deliverables and should all together equal 100%. 

1. New apartment secured20% Time & effort$1000
2. Belongings transferred70% Time & effort$300
3. Previous apartment closed 10% Time & effort$150

The division of resources should reflect the hierarchy, so each level is completed 100% by the deliverables below it. Notice how the second level in the hierarchy adds up to equal 100% of the resources allocated to “Belongings transferred.” 

1. New apartment secured20% Time & effort$1000
2. Belongings transferred 70% Time & effort$300
  2.a. Old apartment packed  35% Time & effort  $50
  2.b. Truck loaded  30% Time & effort  $175
  2.c. Truck unloaded  30% Time & effort  $25
  2.d. Friends appreciated  5% Time & effort  $50
3. Previous apartment closed 10% Time & effort$150

Finally, A Good WBS is Visual

Visual WBS

So far, we’ve taken a standard checklist and turned it into a sophisticated hierarchy of deliverables. But there’s still one more step that can make your life as a project manager so simple. 

Make your WBS visual. 

Before we get into the details of how, take a moment to consider the importance of visuals in communication. It is far easier to understand information when it is represented in a picture than in words. 

Going back to our moving example, let’s say you’ve bought all the materials and tools you need to repair a few nail holes left if your walls. The written instructions will surely give you the details you need, but a few images showing how to repair the wall will be much more intuitive and easily understood. 

If you want to get this same ease of communication in project management, take the sophisticated hierarchy of deliverables and make it visual. Contain each mutually exclusive deliverable in a box, layer the boxes as they relate in the hierarchy, connect dependent variables, and apply a color code scheme that draws attention where attention is needed. 

A WBS is visual to facilitate your management of the project as well as team communication. 

Imagine looking at the spread of deliverables to move into your new apartment with a simple color scheme showing that finished items are green, pending items are yellow, red items need help, and grey items have not yet begun. 

1. New apartment secured20% Time & effort$1000
2. Belongings transferred70% Time & effort$300
3. Previous apartment closed 10% Time & effort$150
  3.a. Nail holes repaired  10% Time & effort  $10
  3.b. Walls painted  40% Time & effort  $100
  3.c. Apartment clean  45% Time & effort  $40
  3.d. Old keys returned  5% Time & effort  $0

Unexpected challenges are bound to occur, but with a WBS, it immediately clear what deliverable is holding up the project. In this case, maybe the paint was the wrong color and you need to exchange it for the correct one. By flagging the deliverable in red, you and your team can see that cleaning the apartment and turning in the keys may be delayed. 

Compare that to our original unorganized checklist and you can see the value of WBS is concentrated in the fact that it is visual. This, backed with a hierarchical structure, described in deliverables, with 100% of the project accounted for, makes it one of the best ways to plan and manage any complex project. 

And with that you should have enough information to get started with your WBS. Congratulations, you’re ready to go!