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Tips for Building a Work Breakdown Structure

written by: Ann Gordon • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 2/11/2011

This article discusses the basics of building a work breakdown structure, including important considerations for the building process, and examples of what not to do when building a WBS.

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    WBS Basics

    A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a project management tool designed to capture project tasks in a visual, organized manner. The WBS was originally developed by the US Department of Defense, which mandated their use across the DoD. Today work breakdown structures are widely used for projects of all types, both business and personal.

    On the most basic level, you decompose the project scope in order to create the work breakdown structure. This takes time in beginning, but ultimately it affords the project manager better control of costs and deadlines, thus saving time. When you use the decomposition process to create your WBS, you are less prone to adding items that are outside of the project scope.

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    A WBS is Not a To Do List

    The example shown below is a simple, task-oriented WBS that resembles a graphical To Do list. A To Do list like the example below may work for a wedding party, but in the corporate world there is more to developing and using a WBS than simply creating an expanded To Do list.

    Example 

    At the beginning of a project, the WBS can serve as a coordinating medium to secure buy-in from stakeholders, supervisors and team members. As the project progresses, the WBS can give visibility to important efforts and foster clear ownership by managers and supervisors. At project completion, the WBS can provide data for performance measurement. That’s more than a To Do list can do.

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    Considerations When Building a Work Breakdown Structure

    There are some aspects of the WBS development to consider before you start, which include:

    • As you set up your project WBS, think about how you will want to use it later in the project. For instance, pay close attention to the indents in your WBS because these eventually end up being the indent structure in your Gantt schedule. Intuitively we gravitate toward developing task-oriented work breakdown structures because they are easy to understand, and because we tend to think of a project as a collection of tasks. It usually takes more effort to develop a deliverable-oriented WBS because they include multiple levels of detail. Yet, taking the time to develop a deliverable-oriented WBS may better serve the project, especially if extensive project management controls are used. Determine whether you want to build a WBS that is process oriented or product oriented. What’s the difference? If the results you want from your project can be defined in verbs, then you want a WBS that is process oriented. If you want a WBS that is built on nouns, then it will be product oriented. Remember that our brains can simultaneously comprehend only 7 to 9 items at a time. When a project involves hundreds of tasks, they need to be broken into chunks that we can readily understand and use. The process of creating a WBS helps break down the project, which makes it easier to manage – and master. Be sure there is no overlap in scope definition between two elements of your WBS. Not only would this result in duplication of effort, but would likely cause confusion regarding responsibility, authority and cost accounting. To help alleviate this problem, create a WBS dictionary to describe each component in detail.
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    The Building Process

    Not only do you need the project scope to create your WBS, you need the input from the project managers and team leaders. Generally, the WBS-building process finds all these people in a room with plenty of white boards and markers, or pads of paper and sticky notes. Out of this brainstorm session should come a first draft of the project WBS. It should be one that will foster “buy in” because the core project personnel participated in its development.

    Creating a quality WBS can take a substantial amount of time, but is usually worth the effort because of the additional clarity it provides for the project manager.

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    Some WBS Resources

    Generating a WBS from Microsoft Project – If your project has already been entered in MS Project, you may want to consider a third-party add-on for MS Project from Critical Tools (http://www.criticaltools.com). Their WBS Chart Pro add-on converts a Gantt chart task list with indents into a standard WBS graphic.

    Military Standard for WBS - For comprehensive instructions on how to build a work breakdown structure, check out the complete military standard for work breakdown structures on the EverySpec website (http://www.everyspec.com) - just search for Work Breakdown Structures.

What is a Work Breakdown Structure?

This series approaches the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) from a beginner's standpoint. To describe the WBS one could use the well-known adage, "How do you eat an elephant?" The answer, "One bite at a time."
  1. What is a Work Breakdown Structure?
  2. Tips for Building a Work Breakdown Structure
  3. Work Breakdown Structure Pitfalls to Avoid
  4. Need to Create a WBS? These Templates Make the Process Easier
  5. How to Create a Microsoft Excel Work Breakdown Structure