A work breakdown structure is a document that illustrates the whole project broken down into smaller components, which add up together to form the final product. Basically, it’s like a visual map showing how many parts the project consists of and how much time, resources and money will each part need to be completed.
How to use work breakdown structure
One thing to note that this should not be confused with a project plan with tasks. Work breakdown is not about the tasks that need to be done, it’s about the deliverables that need to be finished. Let’s take an example:
Suppose you have a project to construct a house. This is your final deliverable and should be at the top (this is your level 1). Now the final deliverable can be broken down into smaller elements (basically as many as you wish, but they should all make sense and not be too small parts). In this case let’s do it like this: External, Foundation and Internal and Interior design. (your level 2 parts)
Each of those parts can have small ones like for example number of rooms, the design of each room (for interior), should there be a garden outside? How many trees are needed? (for external), electricity and plumbing (for internal) and so on and so forth. These will be your level 3 parts. This structure can be as long as you want, just make sure not to overdo it.
There is no point in getting too detailed oriented in this: remember it’s not a project plan where you need to deliver your vision to your team members clearly. Getting into tiny details will accomplish nothing more than just adding up useless text that gets in the way and creates a mess and more importantly, it’s a complete waste of time.
It can also frustrate people if you include the simplest of things that only require common sense (like for example including that each room needs to have 1 door, or that electricity needs to be in every room, doesn’t get a genius to figure this stuff out).
So we now have three smaller parts that ,when finished, will compliment the end deliverable. Each of those parts will/can be delivered separately, but in regard with all the others so that everything is completed on time. The smaller parts can be calculated for their own time of completion, resources required and budget available.
Why use a work breakdown structure (WBS)
A work breakdown structure is super useful for a number of reasons:
- You will not forget anything – When you map out the whole thing, every bit will be calculated and it’s almost impossible to forget anything. Even if you do forget an element or two, the map will clearly indicate that something is missing and needs to be filled.
- Allows to estimate budget, time and resources – This is where the WBS shines. When you clearly understand what your project is about, it becomes rather simple trying to estimate how much time, money and resources will every specific part need.
Let’s use the previous example again. So for interior design let’s say that you want to have a staircase, 5 rooms on the first floor and 2 bedrooms upstairs, a kitchen and 3 bathrooms. There you go, now that you know what you want to get, you can make your calculations accordingly.
- Using the 100% rule – One key aspect of the WBS is that you need to look at the big picture. Always. So for example you have 6 months to complete the whole house. This means that in order to get the final deliverable on time, your smaller parts need to be calculated into this time. You need to have the foundation, external, internal pieces and interior design ready in 6 months so that they form the final deliverable together.
The amount of time dedicated to each separate part is up to you, just make sure that you follow the 100% rule. So for example you can dedicate 2 months to interior design, 1.5 months to external, 1 month to the foundation and 1.5 months to internal. This rule should be applied from the very bottom of your breakdown structure.
- It’s easier to create the project plan accordingly – Once you have the breakdown structure complete, it’s very easy to create the project plan accordingly. This is where you start distributing tasks for each part and you can finally go into full detail mode (the size of each door, the color of each room, etc.) Again, the number of tasks is up to you, figure it out with your team.
Work breakdown structure is an awesome way to visualize a particularly complex project. You don’t necessarily need to use this for every project that you do (if you know you can manage a small project without it, don’t waste time on mapping everything out), but the larger a project is, the more stuff needs to be understood and remembered. Try using a work breakdown structure for your next project and tell us about your results in the comments below.
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