What is a Work Breakdown Structure and Why Should You Use One?

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What is a Work Breakdown Structure?

Knowing how to construct a proper work breakdown structure (WBS) is essential for those looking to succeed in project management and systems engineering. For those that are new to project management and want to know what is a work breakdown structure, it can be defined as a “key project deliverable that organizes the team’s work into manageable sections.”

Well-constructed work breakdown structures will create a tight visually defined scope of the project’s goals, in chunks that a project team can understand at each level of development. For every new level of your company’s project, the work breakdown structure should provide further detail and instructions for the team to follow, leading to a well aligned finished goal or task.

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To think of how work breakdown structures are created in simpler terms, imagine viewing an outline or map of the project you are working on. Your work breakdown structures should begin its outline at the uppermost decipherable level of the project, and then work down into sub-sections that represent sub-deliverables using a logical outline hierarchy. By doing this, you will create a visual guide that will make otherwise difficult to understand task workflow within the grasp of anyone knowledgeable about the tasks outlined.

When starting to construct your newly formed work breakdown structure, you need to first identify the major functional deliverables and then divide those into the sub-deliverable categories and smaller systems that various team members will be focusing on. You must keep breaking these tasks down into smaller and smaller sub-deliverable sections until a single person on the team can handle each base task of the outline. Once you have done this, you can begin grouping tasks into a visually coherent and logical outline.

What is a Work Breakdown Structure : defining it in a single sentence

Ultimately, this structure will allow every package of the task to represent the “to-dos” that will lead to the project’s overall completion. Although people may organize similar information in different ways, the work breakdown structure is the clearest cut and most logical way to deliver this information to a team. After all, keeping communication consistent and clear is one of the best strategies to creating an effective and cohesive team effort going strong.

In fact, when looking at the decision of how to organize such information from a cost perspective, work breakdown structure packages can be produced from a single department, saving you lots of overhead costs! Additionally, the clear-cut way a work breakdown structure is broken down will allow you to calculate the costs of a project much more effectively. By knowing how many people will be working on a project’s task at any given time, you should be able to come up with a reasonable ETA on the project completion date, and the man-hours needed (as well as the specific people and salaries needed to complete them). Perhaps most attractive of all is that by integrating the cost accounts from the organizational method of the work breakdown structures, you can track the financial project in a way that will benefit future efforts made on similar projects and tasks.

Organizing and preparing for your company’s project in an optimal way is only one of the many benefits work breakdown structures have to offer your company. Since you will be able to accurately allocate time and costs from the top down on projects, you can kick off projects much more quickly than you would be able to using other organizational methods. Additionally, work breakdown structures will allow you to navigate, analyze, and rework budget and time considerations in real time during a project.

One other major benefit of this workflow is the ability to use work breakdown structures to identify potential risks associated with a project. Since every aspect of the project has been compartmentalized, you can easily go through every step and define the obstacles that may arise during every step of your journey. By having this valuable oversight on a project wide scale, the scope of your project can become much larger while not gaining a disproportionate amount of risk. To ensure these risks are properly accounted for, using a project log that can be reviewed by project managers and executes can be helpful. Finally, with these risks in mind, project managers will be able to create communication plans and guidelines much more effectively!

Even with the awesome structure the work breakdown structures provide, there are sure to be obstacles and delays that arise. After all, human error must always be accounted for if you want to plan a project successfully. Thankfully, the work breakdown structures will allow you a quick guide to refer back to so that the major deliverables impacted by the delay can be immediately identified. Color-coding the various levels of your work breakdown structures is a great way to make this information even clearer to your team. Perhaps you could even implement a color-coding system where colors gain certain shades when they are, or are being threatened to become, delayed.

Having a strict set of guidelines is extremely helpful when first constructing your work breakdown structures. By having defined parameters from the get go, you will avoid sloppy work that will make this logical method pointless. To help you get started, here are some guidelines that we highly recommend for work breakdown structures, no matter what industry the project is happening in:

  • Always make the top level representative of the final project goal.
  • Each work package should accurately define the duration, work goals, and costs that each task requires to create sub-deliverable tasks.
  • No work package should extend a time goal of 10 days.
  • Every sub-deliverable should contain a work package aimed at a specific department or team member.
  • Avoid making every element defined in the same amount of detail.
  • Add more detail to ones that should be emphasized in the overall project.
  • Every work package should be unique in its format and goals.
  • Inside work breakdown structures, every work package should stay independent of one another.

What is a work breakdown structure planning session?

Creating effective work breakdown structures will require a massive collaboration between the members of a single department, so be prepared for many different creative inputs and suggestions. Having multiple brainstorming sessions before getting into major work breakdown structure planning sessions is highly recommended.

Work breakdown structures have all of these valuable benefits and more to offer your company’s workflow, so consider ridding yourself of more archaic and less logically inclined methods toward making your project goals attainable. Once you begin using this awesome strategy, you will find that your projects get done faster, for less money, and are more successful overall!

Click here for an overview of PlanHammer’s WBS Chart Software.