Work breakdown structure is a method in project management for deconstructing complex projects into manageable and trackable tasks.
Also referred to as WBS, the goal of work breakdown structure is to make large, multi-step projects easier to manage. It does this by breaking the projects down into smaller tasks and processes. These individual tasks can then be addressed and completed simultaneously by different teams or team members, allowing for a faster, more efficient project turnaround.
A work breakdown structure takes the form of a detailed diagram, identifying and breaking down the deliverables and associated activities necessary for completion. The primary, final deliverable is situated at the top of the diagram, with sub tasks organized below it. WBS is often used in conjunction with a Gantt chart and IT project management software to improve the planning and execution of otherwise-daunting projects.
Work breakdown structure is generally divided into three distinct types: deliverable-based WBS, phase-based WBS, and responsibility-based WBS.
This approach identifies the connections between the project’s scope and its deliverables. It decomposes the scope into smaller, more-manageable deliverables—usually something specific that must be produced, supplied, or obtained by executing project tasks to satisfy project requirements.
The phase-based WBS breaks the project down into five distinct stages: initiation, planning, execution, control, and close. Within each of these stages are unique deliverables.
A responsibility-based breakdown defines the structure of the project based on the teams, individuals, and organization units that will be working on the project. While the second level of the structure will identify who is responsible to complete the tasks, the subsequent levels follow a similar format to other WBS types, identifying deliverables that must be completed to move the overall project forward.
Additionally, there are several less-common approaches to WBS. These include the following:
This principal also addresses risk and uncertainty using milestones.
The whole The final level consists of the activities that facilitate the
Essentially, every level is supported by the level that follows it. In a traditional breakdown diagram, this results in a branching chart that flows downward from the final deliverable, taking into account all of the essential tasks, activities, and deliverables that need to be performed to complete the project.
Regardless of the format the diagram takes, creating a work breakdown structure consists of five steps.
Once all relevant tasks have been identified and organized according to phase, assign them to the teams and individuals who will be responsible for delivering on them. Authorize the teams to act on the project, and provide any resources and tools they might need.
A well-designed WBS should use visualization techniques to clearly describe the various elements that make up a project, and detail how those elements support one another in achieving a desired goal. With that in mind, here are several best practices to create a work breakdown structure.
The WBS shouldn’t omit any tasks, no matter how small. At each level, the deliverable should consist of the total sum of the work detailed in the level below it.
The point of WBS is to make complex projects easy to understand. The WBS should be easy for all participants to understand without need for detailed explanation.
Don’t bother making separate tasks for work that is already addressed in a different task. Keep tasks mutually exclusive.
Tasks should be broken down far enough that they can be completed by an individual within a reasonable amount of time.
Although it’s important to account for all of the tasks that go into a project, don’t go too deep. Creating too many layers of subtasks can make the project feel confusing and overwhelming. Five levels or fewer should be enough to simplify even the most-complex projects.
The WBS should provide an accurate representation of the scope of the project. If the project itself changes, or if it becomes apparent that the WBS is lacking in any way, managers need to be willing to revise the structure at any given level.
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Learn more about WBS in SPM, and turn even your most complex projects into manageable, streamlined processes.