Work breakdown structure – 6 steps

More and more frequently, one encounters projects of monolithic proportions, the accomplishment of which at first glance seems hardly feasible. The solution: the creation of a Work Breakdown Structure. This allows each project to be structured and the complexity of its content to be reduced.

Creating a Work Breakdown Structure

By definition, projects are comprehensive tasks far removed from any routine, which always entail a risk and are also squeezed into a tight schedule and cost corset. As a project manager you receive a project order that contains the title, goals, start and end dates and the specified costs of the project. Nothing more. And often not even that much, but just the instruction: „Do it!”

For a project manager, the first big challenge is to get an overview of the overall task. What exactly is to be done in order to achieve the goals? When exactly must what be done to meet the deadlines? Where are the priorities? And which experts do I need as support? Answering these questions is supported by the project management method „Work Breakdown Structure“.

The Work Breakdown Structure: the central planning and communication instrument in the project

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is the central planning, communication and controlling instrument in projects.

The Work Breakdown Structure in the Start Phase

In the start phase, the Work Breakdown Structure divides each project into planable and controllable subtasks (=work packages) and thus contains both the contents on a meta level, the time delimitation of the individual work packages by start and end dates, and the responsibilities for the work packages.

The Work Breakdown Structure in the Implementation Phase

In the implementation phase and in project controlling, the work breakdown structure is used as the basis for recording the progress of the work packages step by step and for identifying problems, pending decisions and any delays in deadlines.


Structuring of the project into work packages

By creating a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), any project, no matter how complex, can be made tangible, structured and processed in a manageable way. By breaking down the overall project and distributing the work packages within the team, the project manager is relieved and can concentrate on managing the project. The Work Breakdown Structure creates the necessary structure and orientation as well as clarity about the respective responsibilities for the technical experts involved.

Overview in the Project Using the Work Breakdown Structure

As a central document, the Work Breakdown Structure also ensures a uniform view of the project and its objectives by all participants, as well as a common language. Each employee receives an overview of his or her own tasks on the one hand and the tasks of the others on the other, and is thus aware of the dependencies between the individual work packages. The project team members are aware of who has to deliver which results and when.

Objectives of the Work Breakdown Structure

  • Recording of all tasks to be performed within the framework of the project
  • Structuring of the project into planable & controllable tasks
  • Clear presentation of project contents, dates and responsibilities
  • Structure, orientation and transparency for all parties involved
  • Clarity about responsibilities
  • Common view for all project participants
  • Unification of the language regulations – everyone means the same thing
  • Selection and definition of a structure that
    – is to be applied to the entire project
    – serves as a basis for further planning activities (scheduling, task distribution, resource planning, etc.)
    – is used for project controlling

Developing a Work Breakdown Structure

Ideally, the Work Breakdown Structure is drawn up in the form of a workshop with the participation of a well-chosen group of participants during the project start phase. In complex projects with many participants, a small number of relevant employees are selected. In order to avoid lengthy and inefficient discussions, the number of participants should not exceed eight to ten.


The 6 steps to the Work Breakdown Structure in detail

1) List of all tasks

The first step in creating a Work Breakdown Structure is a complete list of all tasks to be performed within the project in the form of work packages. This should not be done by one person alone (e.g. the project manager) in a quiet room, but in a team. In practice, the brainstorming or mind mapping method is suitable for this purpose.

2) The tasks clusters

The defined tasks are clustered according to subject areas or time schedule. The best method for sorting depends on the project content and must be defined on a case-by-case basis.

3) Define work packages

Following clustering, the identified tasks are summarised in work packages. From the outset, it should be clear which granularity you want to use in order not to get lost in details that have not been lost in this meta-plan. The Work Breakdown Structure can be detailed, but if so, the same level of detail should be found in all project phases.

4) Assignment of responsibilities to the work packages

If the work packages are defined in the form of headings and in their place in the hierarchy, it’s time to get down to business: Who does what? The assignment of responsibilities to the work packages takes place in the team with the technical experts. Each person in charge must make a commitment to his or her task. And above all, they must have the necessary time and know-how. Otherwise, the nomination of another employee must be considered.

5) Define start and end dates of work packages

Once the responsibilities have been determined, the work packages are timed by defining the start and end dates. It is important to consider where the priorities lie and which work packages are interdependent. Which activities must take place one after the other, which can be parallelized and which are perhaps not so important and can therefore be postponed?


6) Documentation of the created Work Breakdown Structure and assignment of unique work package numbers

The last step is the documentation of the Work Breakdown Structure created. In the course of this, each subtask also receives a coding – the work package number. This ensures that there is a fixed place in the Work Breakdown Structure and that the work packages are clearly identified.

There are many possibilities for mapping. Whether as an Excel list, as a beautifully prepared graphical chart or as a simple post-it image on a whiteboard – everyone can decide for themselves on the most suitable presentation method. The necessity of maintenance, which is necessary in every project, should not be ignored.

Tip: Every revision of the Work Breakdown Structure must be versioned in order to avoid the haunting of several different project plans from the outset.

The completed Work Breakdown Structure

The finished Work Breakdown Structure is then stored in a central location and distributed to the project team members. A cross-check with the project goals is helpful for quality assurance of the content of the project structure plan. Are all goals achieved when all work packages have been completed? If so, the claim to completeness is given. A subsequent inclusion of work packages is of course always possible, but care should be taken right from the start not to overlook anything.

6 Steps to the Work Breakdown Structure

  • Listing of the tasks of the project by brainstorming
  • Clustering of tasks e.g. according to subject areas
  • Summary of tasks in logical work packages
  • Assignment of responsibilities
  • Definition of the temporal position of the work packages in the project flow by start and end date
  • Documentation of the overall plan

Example Work Breakdown Structure

For reasons of clarity, the Work Breakdown Structure is best displayed in graphical form. Supporting tools are e.g. MS Excel, MS PowerPoint or special software such as WBS-Chart PRO or GRANEDA Dynamic.

Example: Work Breakdown Structure created with WBS-Schedule-Pro

Example: Work Breakdown Structure created with MS-Powerpoint

Tips for Creating the Work Breakdown Structure

  • The main tasks or phases should be clear to the project manager, at least in their rough structure, even before the project team has worked out the detailed structure.
  • A high-quality Work Breakdown Structure can only be developed in a team, even if the project manager believes he already knows the perfect Work Breakdown Structure.
  • If possible, do not complete the Work Breakdown Structure in one day, but optimize it again after some „impact time“ (design first, then finalize).
  • Approx. 7 – 10 phases, 7 – 10 work packages per phase.
  • If the level of detail is too high, the clarity is impaired and the workload increases disproportionately.
  • The Work Breakdown Structure should be detailed to such an extent that the resulting units (work packages) can be planned and controlled.
  • The Work Breakdown Structure should be presentable on one page.
  • Finally, it must be checked whether the project goals can be achieved with the activities contained in the plan.
  • The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is the basis for all further planning – accordingly, a lot of attention must be paid to it.
  • A large-format printed Work Breakdown Structure is the central communication instrument in the project.
  • For some project types, standardized phases can be used as a basis.