Create WBS

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

The WBS or work breakdown structure is not a “to do” list that you can assemble on the first day of a project. It’s a hierarchy of tasks that results from breaking down the sponsor’s major  project deliverables (the scope) into supporting deliverables the team has to produce.

Each of the deliverables in the WBS is a measurable business result, like “Customer hold time reduced to 20 seconds on average.”  It is not an activity like “Lower hold time.” That is ambiguous. How would a project team know when they were done? How would they know if they achieved the goal?

Creating the WBS with team members is always worth the time it takes. It’s a great opportunity to develop the team members’ commitment to the project deliverables and give them a sense of ownership. Unfortunately, on many projects, the team members don’t see their tasks until after the project manager has listed everything they must complete. So the team members don’t understand how their individual deliverables connect to the overall scope. And they don’t have a sense of ownership of their individual tasks and the project as a whole. Don’t make that mistake. Here’s how to create a WBS the right way.      Main WBS Work Breakdown Structure Page

Create WBS: Begin With A Measurable Scope

The starting point for working with your team is after the project sponsor has approved the project’s scope and 4 to 7 major deliverables.  You should develop the work breakdown structure by working top-down from the scope. Do not assemble a list of the things people want in the project. That “to do” list approach yields projects that cost more and take longer than they should. That’s another mistake to avoid.

You and your team members should decompose the project scope by breaking it down into 4 to 7 high-level deliverables. Each major deliverable is an entry in the WBS and is stated as a metric. That means it is measurable and has an acceptance criteria. You break each of the major deliverables into its component parts. They are the elements required to produce that deliverable. You work down each level of deliverables, subdividing them into smaller deliverables. You stop when you get down to the level of individual team member assignments. That’s how you develop the work breakdown structure top-down.

Create WBS: Brainstorming With the Team

When your team members participate in defining the deliverables with acceptance criteria they understand how the entire network of deliverables fits together. And they are committed to the project’s success because they participated in the process. Let’s dig deeper into the process of brainstorming with the team to break down a deliverable into its component parts. Let’s say you’re decomposing a measurable deliverable like, “Employees can retrieve items from the supply inventory in less than 180 seconds 90% of the time.” You and the team might identify the following 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 1 minute and 15 seconds.

There may be many ways to go about achieving the high-level deliverable of reducing the time required to retrieve supplies. During the conversation with your team, you would allow people to suggest different ways of achieving that end result. But it’s a best practice to achieve consensus on the approach to each of the deliverables.

Create WBS: Archived or Expert Information

Another way to develop the work breakdown structure is to use work breakdown structures archived from previous projects.  You may not be able to use the prior project’s entire work breakdown structure.  But very often you and your team can find a section of a WBS that’s close enough to what you’re doing in the present project that you can 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 help you and the team develop the deliverables for your project.

Create WBS: Sequencing and Assigning Resources

The sequence of tasks in the WBS  is controlled by predecessors. Predecessors  identify the relationship between tasks. They tell the team what tasks are linked to other tasks. For example, Task A must be completed before Task B can begin. Or Tasks C and D must begin at the same time.

Next you assign resources to each task in the WBS. The resources can be people, materials, or contractors. You get input from the team members on the amount of resources required for each task. Their input is invaluable if they have experience with the specific or similar tasks. When you calculate the duration of every task in the WBS you have completed your project schedule. After the project sponsor approves the schedule, you save that approved version as the baseline. As work begins, you keep track of the progress the team makes on each task compared to the baseline. That is the basis for your weekly status reporting.

Create WBS: Best Practices

The WBS is central to the entire process of planning, scheduling and tracking a project. The best practices for developing a work breakdown structure involve these steps:

  1. After the project sponsor defines the scope (overall objective), the project manager and team members begin creating the WBS. They decompose (break down) the scope into 4 to 7 major deliverables that are measurable.
  2. The project manager and team members break down each of the major deliverables into smaller deliverables. Each one is stated as an acceptance criteria metric.
  3. The project manager and team members sequence the deliverable tasks and assign resources to them.
  4. The project manager obtains the sponsor’s approval of the WBS plan and schedule before beginning work.

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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