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How to Create a Microsoft Excel Work Breakdown Structure

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Marlene Gundlach • updated: 7/17/2013

This is a simple, how-to article directing readers to the specifics of creating a work breakdown structure (WBS) in Excel.

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    Preliminary Step - Decompose the Project

    Before you begin to create your Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) in Microsoft Excel, you should first decompose your project. Decomposing your project means identifying deliverables, and breaking each deliverable down into its component tasks. You will keep doing this until you get to the smallest work packages possible.

    You then should assign an ID to each work package based upon the relationships between the task items. These work packages will then make up the items of your WBS. For information on decomposing projects, you will want to check out my series on decomposition, especially How to Decompose your Projects.

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    Setting Up Excel

    Once you have properly decomposed your project, you should set up Microsoft Excel to receive your data. Open a new worksheet. Across the top, create at least the following columns:

    Excel WBS 1 

    • Task ID
    • Task Description
    • Predecessor
    • Owner
    • Role
    • % Complete
    • Start Date
    • Finish Date
    • Deliver To

    After creating the columns, you will format the cells. The first cell to format is the Task ID cell. To do this, highlight the column you have designated for the task ID numbers by clicking on the letter at the top of the column. If you do not format the cells, when you type "1.0", the computer will automatically reformat it to "1." Right click on the selected column and choose "format cells" from the drop-down menu. Then, in the "Format Cells" menu, choose "Number" and set "Decimal Places" to "1." The next cell you will need to format in the same way is the "predecessor" cell. This cell will track task dependencies, so you will need to be able to have accurate decimal points here. Set this cell up the same way you set the task ID cell up. Set the duration cell up to accept numbers, and the start and finish date columns to accept dates entered.

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    Enter Your Data

    Once you have your Excel Worksheet set up, you can enter your data. Enter everything you have from your papers where you decomposed your project. Once you have entered your data into the Excel Worksheet, you will be ready to move on to the next step.

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    Using Conditional Formatting

    WBS Excel2 Once all of your data has been entered into the Excel worksheet, you can play around with the conditional formatting feature. Say you wish to create a report of all the tasks due within a given time range. Highlight your start and finish date columns by click-and-dragging over the two letters representing those columns. Next, select "Conditional Formating" from the Excel toolbar. Once you have done this, select "Highlight Cell Rules" and then "A Date Occurring...." From the drop-down menu that appears, you will select "next week" and instantly all of your tasks due next week will be highlighted.

    You can also use conditional formatting to highlight tasks that have been assigned to a specific person, tasks that are on the lowest end of completion, and tasks associated with a specific milestone or deliverable.

    Another useful feature is the "data bar." This bar will graphically represent the percent complete column. You can access it in the conditional formatting menu.

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    Further Reading

    For more tips on creating Work Breakdown Structures and the importance of creating a WBS for your project, you may want to read the following articles:

    What is a Work Breakdown Structure? by Ann Gordon

    Project 2007: Defining the WBS by Linda Richter

    The Role of the WBS in the Project Planning Lifecycle Explained by Lucinda Watrous

    How to Use Decomposition in Work Breakdown Structures by Ronda Levine

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