18 Things You Should Know About a WBS Chart

Posted by in Project management, wbs creator, wbs online tool, wbs software, wbs tool, work breakdown structure

What Is a WBS Chart?

The adage or question applies here – “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is simple. You eat an elephant one bite at a time. A work breakdown structure chart, or WBS for short, is a visual project management tool. It is a way of taking a large project and visually breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces and tasks. I can tell you what a wbs chart isn’t – it isn’t a to-do list.


work breakdown structure

WBS Definition

A WBS is a chart that, when laid out on paper, can portray the relationships of critical key components of a project and how they relate to each other and contribute to the project as a whole. I’ve always been of the mindset that plans are made to be broken. At least, that’s how I overcome many smaller obstacles and projects. It may appear to be negative on the outside, but on the inside what it means is that everything starts with a plan. You may hit a few bumps in the road along the way, but the result – the end goal – remains the same.

WBS Chart Origins and The Project Management Institute

The WBS charting was developed by the United States Department of Defense in 1957. It broke down the Polaris Missile Project into smaller, more manageable tasks. It didn’t take long before the DoD mandated its use across the military board.

In 1987, the Project Management Institute showed that the WBS charting was being utilized in the private sector across non-defense organizations. The Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide is a guide written by the Project Management Institute and provides an overview and thorough definition of the WBS concept. Another book written by them, Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures, is comparable to the Handbook for the Department of Defense but is designed to have a more general application.

WBS Charts Promote Accurate Project Organization

WBS charts enable project managers to accurately organize their projects in a visually perspicuous manner. These projects are often so large that they can seem to be overwhelming in scope. By taking the time to write down the project’s most critical components, you’re organizing your project in a way that others can readily understand.

WBS Charts Offer a Visual Framework for the Project

A completed WBS chart provides a framework for the project. The chart can be considered the skeleton of the project. Every component of the project is written down so that when the project begins, it is built upon the actual chart. Imagine a building without any walls. Instead, you see the framework of the building. You can see how other rooms are connected, where the doorways are, where the windows are – the general layout of the building. This is how WBS charting offers a framework for your project. You take this structure and build upon it as the project nears completion.

WBS Charts Compel Participants to Create Detailed Steps

A successful WBS chart includes the input from several different project managers and members. A completed chart is much more likely to be taken seriously by its participants if their input is included in the wbs chart itself. Any good project manager needs to realize that they are a manager. They are not the ones completing the project. People are divided into teams, and each team contributes to the project as a whole. No one single person can complete every task by themselves. The project manager needs the active participation of everyone involved – that is much more likely to happen when the input from its participants is included and valued.

They Promote Responsibility Delegation

As touched upon before, WBS charts allow for responsibility delegation. In other words, every project manager or team lead involved in the project needs to not only contribute to the creation of the WBS, but be given the tools necessary to delegate responsibility to every member of the organization.

A Good WBS Charting Lays the Foundation for the Project Schedule and Budget

The WBS chart does more than just delegate responsibility – it includes key components of the project. It lays the foundation for scheduling and budgeting purposes. A seasoned project manager is familiar with project scheduling and project budgets. The WBS chart conveys so much information in such little space that its importance is often underestimated.

One of the founding principles of any successful project is cost. Cost is often a relative term – it doesn’t always mean money. It also means time. The WBS charting often has budgetary aspects that can be an indication of monetary costs as well as estimated completion dates.

WBS Charting Keeps People Focused

By giving a team a task and a time frame to complete the task, the WBS keeps people focused. It allows for a measure of accountability and places the project on the forefront of people’s minds. It imposes a healthy level of stress. Stress is often seen as a negative thing, but in this case, stress can get things done. A truly stress-free environment is one where nothing gets done because there is no pressure to get anything done. The modern age of the global workforce imposes that projects need to be completed as efficiently as possible. The WBS does just that – it creates a measure of efficiency within the organization.

WBS Charts Help to Clarify Project Milestones & Control Points

As the project continues, milestones and control points will be reached. A successful project will have project milestones reached on time. Control points, often called phases or gates, simplify the decisions project managers make to push the project to completion. By defining the stages of a project, the project manager is given the ability to manage the project much more efficiently and effectively.

The WBS Imposes Accountability

Because the entire project is laid out on paper in a graphical form, it makes it easier for others to read and understand what is required of them. The whole “responsibility delegation” concept comes into play here. On a higher level, it may only be known that a project manager is responsible for contributing to a certain phase of the project. However, on a lower level this project manager or team manager often delegates these responsibilities to the team. This way, every level of management knows who is responsible for what and when they are responsible for it.

A WBS Breeds Commitment

Everyone loves to see a project near completion. There’s this “excitement in the air” that everyone can feel. When each person contributes and does their part to pull their weight of the project, the project is pushed toward completion. When project managers – and even team members – feel that their input is valued in the creation of the WBS chart, the WBS chart breeds commitment because all of their ideas are written on paper. When people feel that their input is valued, they feel empowered. This attitude breeds commitment among the team members as they contribute to the project.

WBS Charting: Estimation of Cost, Risk & Time

There are two things every project is going to cost people – money and time. From the project inception, it is often a manager’s job to prove that the project will yield a product, and that the product will yield enough benefits that make it worth the cost in both money and time. The WBS chart keeps people within a budget – which lowers the risks associated with the project. Before a project is funded, the project must be appealed to the people with the purse strings. Most projects the present too high of a risk and never get funded. A well-conceived WBS chart that stays within a monetary budget with each phase being allotted reasonable time is much more likely to get funded and be successful.

A Good WBS Chart Resembles a Flowchart

When you look at the WBS on paper, it resembles a flowchart. Flowcharts are very similar to mind maps – which is a method of brainstorming. At the top, you have a trunk. As it branches out toward the bottom, you’ll find detailed tasks that the project requires to be successful. These lines and arrows allow project managers to speculate different scenarios which enable them to make the best decision at the right time based on various circumstances at the time.

A Good Step Towards Visualizing Resource Allocation

Another benefit of having your entire project on paper goes back to risk. If your project is one of many within your organization, you may only have a finite number of resources allocated for your use. The entire purpose of the WBS charts is to break things down into smaller pieces. When you have a set amount of resources to allocate within your organization for your project, the WBS chart enables you to divide your resources based on need. This lowers the risk of running out of resources that can endanger the project.

Makes for Easy Project Explanations and Overviews

Before any project is funded, it must be explained. To explain it efficiently, you could write about it. This document could very well easily be like a business plan spanning well over 50 pages. However, a WBS can take that 70-page document and turn it into a three or four charts spanning less than five pages. As projects require the contribution from many members, these people must also understand the project and how they relate to it. A well put together WBS chart allows people to collaborate on the project and communicate the finer points and parts of the project effectively.

Speaks To Other Project Managers

Other project managers have a need to understand the project in its completion. You may find that it’s your job to explain the project to other people. A WBS chart gives you the tools necessary to explain the project to other people, broken down in a way that they can understand.

Clarifies High Level Project Overview To Stakeholders

Stakeholders often want to know what their company is up to. WBS charts enable them to communicate the complex parts and stages of the project without going into too much detail. A WBS chart can be as detailed as a product manager needed to be. For other project managers, the chart can be quite exquisite. For the stakeholders, it can be nothing more than a strong overview that lets them know what is going on.


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