Create a WBS — Time to Get Things Done

Creating your WBS (or work breakdown structure) is a very important step in the planning process and one that you should dedicate significant time to. I have seen planning teams rush through this step only to have to spend additional time as they try to begin planning the project calendar to return to the WBS. But I would say that every project manager has tried to rush through this step at one time or another only to learn their lesson and get their butt kicked by their project. In this case, there are two type of project manager: the one who this has happened to and those to whom this will happen to.

A WBS is a breakdown of all the activities that will be required by your team to accomplish the goals of the project. Using an example from the econ classes I had in college, if you want to manufacture a widget, it is a breakdown of all the steps that will be required to make your final product within the specifications you have set in your project scope.

If you are just starting out in the profession of project management, this is where your project scope statement will come into play. You will utilize the scope statement as your guiding document throughout the process. The formalized process of putting together your WBS is called decomposition. Of course your project team should be intimately involved in creating the WBS as this is why you are relying on their expertise. The process is a simple, five step process that includes:

  1. Identifying the deliverables of your project
  2. organizing the activities of your WBS into groups with commonalities
  3. breaking your defined activities into their most basic elements and defining the activities to support them
  4. assigning some type of identifiers or code to each activity
  5. having your team verify that the WBS is complete.

For the rest of our discussion, let’s use this diagram for reference:

WBS Sample

The strength of the WBS is in the details. In this example, we look at the construction of a home. There are three levels of deliverables in this example. Depending on how complicated your project is, you may have more levels. Level one is called the project, or deliverables, which is in this case the construction of a home. Level two in this case is a basic breakdown of the different project areas that support the completion of the project or deliverable. You will notice in the example there is a breakdown of how much work has been completed and the total budget for each project area. During the creation of the WBS you shouldn’t worry about budget or timeline creation. Those two steps come a little bit later.

The next level, for example 1.1 Electrical, is called a work package. It is in this level that you provide significant detail related to the steps and tasks required to complete the project. It is at this level that you will build the details of the budget and the time frame required to complete each of the work packages. Your project team should spend significant time collaborating to detail these steps at this stage of the planning process. The input of experts in the field will help you avoid the headaches of missed deadlines and poorly estimated budgets. Work packages are really the structure behind project planning.

You will notice that each of the three levels include a unique identifier. Those are typically assigned by the software you are using, which could include Microsoft Project. If you are looking for a simpler approach to using software to create a WBS, I would suggest that there may be better options on the market for you. One is Mindview, which will allow you to create a WBS using a layout that will best meet your needs. I like that you can select different chart layouts for your WBS — a top-down chart like in the example, a timeline, outline, or a Gantt chart. You can also export your WBS from Mindview to Microsoft Project if you like. I think it is a solid solution.

In future articles I will discuss some of the strategies I have of managing the process of creating a WBS with a large team. During the process of the creation of the WBS is where your leadership and personnel management skills and talents will enable you to keep your team on task and efficient. I know in my experience it is easy to lose control of a team during what boils down to a brainstorming session. An effective project manager can direct their team during the creation of the WBS and move on to the next step in the planning process.

Related Topics:
Communication and Project Management
Defining Project Scope
Establishing Project Timelines

About the Author

I am the author of this site, and what I say goes. I love talking about the benefits of formalized and professional project management and getting stuff done.