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What is Work Breakdown Structure

You may have seen WBS or work breakdown structure when you start as a project manager and we’re sure you wondered what a work breakdown structure is.
A job breakdown structure, although it includes breaking down deliverables, not work; despite what its name may imply. This basic, confounding fact reiterates why you need to understand what the structure of a work breakdown is.

We have therefore curated this guide to inform you of all that WBS is. Let’s begin with the fundamentals.

What is a Work breakdown structure?

The first thing you need to know about WBS is its definition.
A collection of standards and terms that are recognized as concepts within the project management industry is the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) guide.
The PMBOK has this to say about the definition of a work breakdown structure:

A deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be carried out by the project team to achieve the aims of the project and generate the necessary results”
If you’re like us, you’re just reading that and saying ‘what?!
Now let’s get it broken down.
Simply put, the work breakdown structure makes a clear definition of project’s “what.”
A system of work breakdown clearly outlines all the components that a project requires to fulfil. Typically this is achieved by a multilevel graphical display.
This chart is intended to clearly describe complex tasks that are broken down into smaller, manageable components.

Difference between Work Breakdown Structure, Project Plan, and Project Schedule

Until you truly understand the system of a work breakdown, you need to know what not a work breakdown a structure is.

There is also lack of understanding about the distinction between the structure of a work breakdown, a project plan, and a project schedule.

Let’s individually consider each of these to emphasize the difference between the three.

Difference between:

― Work Breakdown Structure

― Project Plan and

― Project Schedule

Until you truly understand the system of a work breakdown, you need to know what not a work breakdown a structure is. There is also a lack of understanding about the distinction between the structure of a work breakdown, a project plan, and a project schedule. Let’s individually consider each of these to emphasize the difference between the three.

1. Work breakdown structure

As discussed, the “what” of the project is discussed by WBS and highlights the results that need to be accomplished for project completion.

.Work breakdown structure is a deliverable-oriented breakdown of the whole project into a smaller element. The aim of this is to organize the work of the team into convenient sections.

The WBS is a hierarchical structure of the scope of the project. On the other hand, work breakdown structure is one single document

2. Project plan

In a project, there are different elements that need to be prepared, and this is where the project plan comes into play. Not only does the project plan describe the scope of the project, but it also outlines other things, such as how to conduct and manage the project.

Things that need to be included in the project plan include the tools needed to accomplish deliverables, scheduling, risk management, etc., but are not limited to them. The project plan is the broadest framework in terms of the level of detail out of the three.

3. Project schedule

Project schedules enable the execution of a plan by the provision of start dates and deadlines. For the activities listed in the work breakdown structure, the project schedules include dates. The project schedule also specifies dates and deadlines for other project components and provides the project with a full timeline.

Types of work breakdown structures

There are typically three kinds of work breakdown structures: deliverable-based, responsibility-based, and phase-based. The most commonly adopted go-to approach generally is the deliverable-based approach.

1. Phase-based work breakdown structure

You would be able to distinguish between the three work breakdown structure approaches by the elements defined in the first level of work breakdown structure hierarchy.

2. Responsibility-based work breakdown structure

The responsibility-based work breakdown structure describes the elements of the project by the organizational units that will work on the project.

The organizational units will be the first level of structure in a responsible work-based breakdown structure, the rest of the levels will also adopt the same pattern as the other two work-breakdown structures.

So what are the benefits of creating a work breakdown structure?

Can you think what is even the point of a work breakdown structure?

I mean, what about a project plan, a budget plan, a project schedule that should be organized enough to get it all down to the’t’ right?

Okay, not really.

A structure of work breakdown is an initial step in making a complete schedule for the project. A WBS will help the team understand the scope and deliverables at each level pertaining to them.

  • Provides guidance: WBS demonstrates the deliverables of the project and the work that needs to be completed, enabling the team to be directed in a structured and consistent way about what needs to be achieved.
  • Keeps focus on project scope: since the WBS is clear and concise, the focus of the document is on the scope and deliverables of the project. This allows your team to stay focused on what is within the scope.
  • Helps prevent changes and scope creep: WBS shows the breakdown of the entire project clearly highlighting what is in scope. The diagram allows for the project scope and deliverables to be clear for your team members but also stakeholders.
  • Provides easy estimation for resource and time management: WBS is the foundation you can use to create your project budget and schedule. With all the connections between the deliverables and those deliverables needed to complete the project, your job of assigning resources and setting timelines will be much easier.
  • Accountability: with a WBS all elements are mutually exclusive. This exclusivity allows accountability to be created. A team allocated to a work package is completely accountable for its completion and success. This allows you to avoid overlap of responsibility.

How do you go about making a work breakdown structure?

There are different ways you could go about creating a work breakdown structure, depending on what will work for you and your team.

However, here is a simple structure and process you can follow to make the task easier for you. The structure of the work breakdown structure development process will generally follow this outline:

  • Work breakdown structure
  • Work breakdown structure dictionary
  • Scope baseline

1. Understand what is within your project’s scope

Before you can get down to creating your work breakdown structure you need to ask yourself:

What is our project’s scope?

You can do this by first and foremost gathering critical project documents. Namely, the project statement and the project scope management plan.

The project’s scope statement will allow you to recognize the project’s scope clearly and in detail.

The project’s scope management plan will allow you to appreciate how you can deal with changes to your project’s scope, which directly affects your deliverables.

2. Determine your project’s deliverables

The next step of creating a work breakdown structure is identifying the level one elements, in other words highlighting your project’s deliverables.

Ensure that you include all the major deliverables necessary for the successful completion of your project.

When determining the deliverables ensure that each deliverable is essential to the success of your project.

Furthermore, each deliverable you identify should be the responsibility of an independent team in your project.

3. Create work packages

A work package is a deliverable at the lowest level of the work breakdown structure.

You need to decompose, or breakdown your level one deliverables into lower-level deliverables or work packages.

Try and make sure that you identify all the work necessary to complete the deliverable you are decomposing.

Ensure that each work package follows these points:

  • Each work package should be independent. The work package should not be dependent on any other element and be mutually exclusive.
  • You should have work packages that are definable. Each work package should have a clear beginning and end. These work packages should also be clear and understood by all your team members.
  • Your work packages should allow you to estimate resource requirements and timelines.
  • Your work package should be manageable.
  • Each work package should be able to integrate to create level one elements.
  • Ensure that the work packages that you identify are adaptable, to adhere to any changes in your project plan or scope.

Ensure you have broken your deliverables into manageable elements and that there is no need for any additional decomposition.

4. Create a work breakdown structure dictionary

The work breakdown structure dictionary is to explain the definition and scope of each of the elements in your work breakdown structure.

The dictionary is a supporting document that allows teams to easily understand the work breakdown structure.

This document is not a necessity for every work breakdown structure however but does allow for your work breakdown structure to be more accessible and easier to understand.

4. Decide on a format and create your work breakdown structure

After deciding and identifying your work packages and possibly making a work breakdown structure dictionary it is time to decide on the format your work breakdown structure will take.

There are multiple formats you can follow, and whichever you pick is really up to what will benefit you most as a project manager and be easier for your team to understand.

You can create a text-based hierarchal grouping or make a more visual tabular structure.

Once you decide on your format all that’s left is to create the work breakdown structure.

Characteristics of an effective work breakdown structure

Keep in mind that any effective work breakdown structure has these following elements:

  • Deliverable-oriented structure of project elements
  • Formulated by those doing work on the project
  • Includes the complete work defined by the scope, capturing all deliverables in terms of the work that needs to be completed
  • Defines the project, describes the work and project scope clearly
  • Created in a chart, illustration or outline format
  • Arranges deliverables in a hierarchal layout
  • Contains at least two levels
  • Uses nouns or adjectives, and avoids the use of verbs
  • Is adaptable allowing for continual improvement
  • Employs a coding scheme for each element that identifies the hierarchal nature of the work breakdown structure when viewed.

There you have it!

And there you go. Here are all the basics you need to understand what a work breakdown structure is.

Now have at it and start creating.

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