Create WBS

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

The WBS or work breakdown structure is a listing of every deliverable that the team must produce. Creating the WBS with team members  is a great opportunity to improve people’s commitment to the project and give them a sense of ownership. Usually, the project team sees their tasks after the project manager lists everything they have to complete. That yields very little ownership and even the lack of understanding of how each team member’s deliverable connects to the overall scope. Main WBS Work Breakdown Structure Page

The starting point for working with your team is after the project sponsor has approved the scope and 4 to 7 major deliverables in the project. Note that all of the entries on the work breakdown structure are deliverables with acceptance criteria like, “Error rate less than 3%.” That acceptance criterion could cover an entire project or it could be one high-level deliverable in a project aimed at improving customer service. Finally, it could be the deliverable assigned to an individual.  However, every entry has a metric that tells people what a good job is. Having your team participate gives them an understanding of how the entire network of deliverables fits together.

Create WBS with Team MembersCreate WBS: Brainstorming With the Team

With those definitions in mind, we start the process by taking one of the high-level deliverables and decomposing it. Decomposition is the process of breaking a deliverable into its component parts. As an example, if we were decomposing a deliverable we talked about earlier, “employees can retrieve items from the supply inventory in less than 180 seconds 90% of the time.” we might talk with the team about how we go about achieving and identify these supporting deliverables;

  • install new supply room map that lets 90% of the people locate the shelf with their item in less than 60 seconds
  • reorganize shelves so people can find their specific item in less than 45 seconds
  • automate the supply signed out process so people can record the item(s) they took in less than one minute 15 seconds.

There might be many ways to go about achieving the high-level deliverable of reducing the time to retrieve supplies. During the conversation with your team, you would allow people to suggest different ways of achieving that end result. It is good practice to achieve consensus on the approach to each of the deliverables.

Another way to develop the work breakdown structure besides brainstorming with the team is to use work breakdown structures from previous projects.  You may not be able to use the entire work breakdown structure. However very often you can find a section of the WBS that is close enough to what you’re doing in the present project that you can simply copy the deliverables. On larger projects that are more complex you may bring in experts on certain kinds of deliverables like computer programs, remodeling of workspace and so on. You would use their expertise to develop the deliverables for your project.

Predecessors that control the sequence of the tasks will link them. Then we assign resources to each task in the WBS. The resources could be people, materials, or contractors. Then, the project manager calculates the duration of every task in the WBS and that completes our project schedule. When the project sponsor approves the schedule, the project manager saves that approved version of the schedule as the baseline. When work begins, the project manager keeps track of the progress the team makes on each task. That is the basis for status reporting.

Create WBS: The Decomposed Project Scope

We always develop the work breakdown structure by working top-down from the scope, not by assembling a list of the things people want in the project. That to do list approach to developing the work breakdown structure yields projects that cost much more and take much longer than they should. When we work top-down, we start with the scope of the project as defined by the project sponsor and we decompose it or break it into 4 to 7 high-level deliverables, each of which is a metric. Then we continue working top-down and we take each of those major deliverables and break it into its components, the elements that are required to produce that deliverable. On a very large project, we may work down another level or even two, subdividing large deliverables into smaller deliverables until we get down to the level of individual assignments. That’s developing the work breakdown structure top-down.

Create WBS: Best Practices

As you can see, the WBS is very central to the entire process of planning, scheduling and tracking a project. The best practices for developing a WBS involve these steps:

  1. After the sponsor of the project defines the scope or overall objective, the project manager begins the creation of the WBS by decomposing the scope into 4 to 7 major deliverables.
  2. We define each of the major deliverables by what the team will produce at the end. As an example, “Clean up the file room” is not a clear deliverable because we can’t measure the end result. On the other hand, a deliverable like, “98% of the books on the shelf in alphabetical order,” does define the end result in measured terms.
  3. To complete the WBS, the project manager takes each of the major deliverables and further decomposes them into smaller deliverables until they reach the right size task for an individual project team member.


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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 60 short project management videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows are on