work breakdown structure

What is Work Breakdown Structure?

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is one of the most misused term in Project Management. It can mean different things to different professionals. The meaning could be Organization Chart, Bar Chart (popularly known as Gantt Chart) or Roles & Responsibilities Chart. It is important to define WBS before we proceed further.

Work Breakdown Structure is a tool to represent Project and Product Scope. A formal definition of WBS would be.

WBS is deliverable oriented hierarchical decomposition of total scope of work.

You can also look Max Wideman’s Glossary for few other definitions of Work Breakdown Structure. Before you further, you should read some of my other articles on WBS.

2 Popular Ways to Create Work Breakdown Structure

Pictorial Method

In pictorial method WBS looks like an Organization Chart. It is a reverse tree like structure. Each descending node of WBS represents a component of higher level node. Pictorial method is useful in following situations:

  • Presenting to Customer, Sponsor or Senior Management.
  • Gaining formal approval of Project Scope definition.
  • Getting commitments from various Stakeholders.
  • Analzing Project and Product Scope at a higher level.
  • Assigning Accountabilities.

Example of Pictorial Method

Work Breakdown Structure

Outline Method

In Outline method looks WBS looks like List of items. It has items and sub-items. Each smaller item of WBS represents a component of higher level item. Outline method is useful in following situations:

  • Gaining commitments from the Project Team.
  • Decompose the Work into activities.
  • Analyzing Project Components at a lower level.
  • Assigning individual responsibilities to Project Team members.
  • Regular Monitoring and Control.

Example of Outline Method

  • Project Andromeda
    • Phase Jupiter
      • lo
      • Callisto
      • Europa
    • Phase Saturn
    • Phase Uranus

The above example is using the same components as used in the example of Pictorial method.

Which is the best Method?

One method is not superior to the other method. Both the methods have their own application. It is sometimes useful to prepare WBS using both the methods.

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  1. Project Management’s first step is creating the work breakdown structure, a step that then enables subsequent planning of the work processes and schedule for accomplishing the project.

  2. Praveen and colleagues,
    You are perpetuating a less than ideal approach to WBS structures. IDEALLY what we should be seeing are STANDARDIZED WBS which are industry specific and are MULTI-DIMENSIONAL.

    The day of the “ad hoc” or “custom built” WBS structure as being a “best tested and proven” practice is coming to an end.

    How can I predict this? If you look to CONSTRUCTION we have been using STANDARDIZED, MULTI DIMENSIONAL WBS structures since the 1960’s. It started with CSI’s Masterformat and Uniformat and was expanded to a 3 dimensional model about 25 years ago by the Norwegian Oil Ministry with their Norsok Z-014 standard CBS/WBS, which is a three dimensional WBS model.

    Now with the proliferation of Building Information Modeling (BIM) CSI, ISO and several other standard setting organizations have developed a 15 dimension STANDARDIZED WBS/CBS coding structure called OMNICLASS. This is the ENABLER which makes it possible for the various software programs (design, document control, scheduling, cost estimating, accounting etc) to talk to one another. And without STANDARDIZATION this will never be possible.

    For more on this, go HERE (FREE) and it will explain this process in more detail.

    Dr. PDG, Guangzou, China

    1. Thanks Dr. PDG.

      I remember long time back you had shared a website on Internet which had standardized WBS for various industries. Could you please share it again? It would help the readers.

      A standardized approach is always good and can be followed for large industrial projects like projects in Oil and Gas. However, for general or new industry projects, one needs to start from scratch to prepare the WBS.

      Thanks again for your input.

    1. Hi, Work item is not a standard term – at least not in PMBOK Guide. Work Package is a standard term as defined in the article. If Work item is written somewhere, depending on the context, it could mean anything – a work package or a higher level component in a WBS or even combination of work packages. Hope it helps.

    2. Alireza, if you want to see an EXCELLENT graphical explanation of “Work Package” and “Planning Package” (a term PMI has missed) go HERE (FREE) and scroll down to Figure 2.

      That is perhaps the best and most clear explanation showing how the Control Accounts, Work Packages and Planning Packages all fit into the “big picture” WBS.

      FWIW, my professional opinion is PMI has not yet fully grasped this or at least they don’t explain it very well in their PMBOK Guide and the questions on the PMP exam coming from “Rita, Cheetah and PMP Exam for Dummies” only exacerbates the confusion.

      Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

  3. Hi Praveen,
    Yes, if you go HERE you can download the NORSOK Z-014 three dimensional model and if you go HERE you can download the 15 dimension Omniclass model.

    What I do NOT agree with is that we should have to start from scratch for each and every project. That is nothing more than an indication that an industry has yet to MATURE……… I mean seriously how many different elements or components go into an IT project that are in anyway UNIQUE and don’t appear in ALL other IT projects to some degree or another?

    Forget OPIUM3 or any of these other “capability maturity” models. You want to see how mature a company or an industry is? One of the first things to look for is whether they have STANDARDIZED their WBS at least within the ORGANIZATION if not the INDUSTRY…

    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

  4. Despite the fact that I have long years of experience with project management and I believe in the WBS method, there is real big challenge in using it in the today’s SW development methodologies of SAFe and DevOps, since the full picture is unclear at the initial stage and many times changes on the fly.

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