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Work Breakdown Structure

cplace Glossary

What is a work breakdown structure?

The work breakdown structure (WBS) is a hierarchical representation of all tasks in a project. An overall project is systematically broken down into its smallest components – subtasks and work packages or processes. These parts are then assigned to a level and arranged hierarchically to create a clear representation of the project structure. Typically, the work breakdown structure is presented in the form of a tree diagram.

The WBS not only provides a visual structure, but also enables a clear definition of the various elements and tasks of the project. It forms the basis for all further steps in project planning, for example the creation of a schedule using a Gantt chart.

By using the work breakdown structure, it is easier to visualize work processes. This allows for a more accurate assessment of time and personnel requirements, making the entire project management process more efficient.

Work Breakdown Structure

What does a work breakdown structure include?

A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) typically contains several hierarchical levels that divide the overall project into its individual components.


The key elements of a work breakdown structure

  • The project:
    The overarching project determines the objective, the division into sub-projects and the respective work packages.
  • The levels or subprojects:
    The subprojects are sublevels of the overall project and can be further subdivided into specific tasks (workpackages).
  • The workpackages:
    They are assigned to the individual sub-projects and represent concrete tasks that contribute to the fulfillment of the sub-project. They should have clearly defined goals, responsibilities, deadlines, and budgets.
  • Responsibilities
    At each level of the work breakdown structure, it should be clearly defined who is responsible for which tasks and work packages.
  • Deadlines
    Setting clear dates and deadlines for the various work packages and sub-projects is critical to ensuring that the project runs smoothly.
Elemente Projektstrukturplan

What types of work breakdown structures are there?

Function oriented work breakdown structure

A function oriented WBS is characterized by the fact that the project is structured according to functions. For example, the individual levels can represent the departments involved, such as development, engineering, and IT. The work packages within this structure represent the specific tasks that must be performed by each department to successfully complete the project.

Time oriented work breakdown structure

A time driven WBS focuses on time flow. The structure is based on a chronological arrangement of components that build on each other. The time-based WBS is divided into different phases that reflect the progress and development of the project, such as initialization, planning, implementation, and control. This presentation makes it easy to see dependencies between tasks and promotes efficient planning and control of each phase.

Object oriented work breakdown structure

An object-oriented WBS is focused on the desired outcome of the project, such as a product. For example, in software development, the subprojects of a work breakdown structure could be divided into the required software components. This makes it possible to clearly structure a product roadmap that is focused on the end goal, the product.


How to create a work breakdown structure

A work breakdown structure is created in several steps. The following basic steps should be followed:

  1. Create clarity about the approach: The first step is to decide what approach to take. This includes deciding on the type of WBS, whether it is object-oriented, function-oriented, or time-oriented. This approach must meet the requirements of the project and the preferences of the team.
  2. Identify the Levels: Identify the goal of the project as the top level 1, with the corresponding subprojects below as level 2.
  3. Break it down into work packages: Break down each sub-project or goal into smaller, more manageable work packages or tasks in Level 3. These should include clearly defined tasks with specific objectives, budgets and timelines.
  4. Hierarchical organization: Arrange the work packages in a hierarchical structure. For example, use a tree diagram to illustrate the relationships and dependencies between elements.
  5. Define responsibilities: Assign clear responsibilities for each work package. This makes it easier to assign tasks to team members or departments and promotes transparency in project management.
  6. Account for dependencies: Consider the dependencies between work packages. This enables realistic scheduling and identification of critical paths in the project.
  7. Review and adjust: Periodically review and adjust the work breakdown structure. Changes during the project may require major adjustments.

Preparing a work breakdown structure requires careful planning and team collaboration to ensure that all relevant aspects of the project are considered. Once the plan is created, it can be visualized over time using various methods. Common methods include Kanban boards or Gantt charts.

What are the advantages of a work breakdown structure?

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Better estimation of effort

By involving project participants in the creation of a work breakdown structure, the time and people required for the project can be better estimated and controlled in the second step.

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Complete task list

A comprehensive list of all tasks helps to clearly structure and organize the project.

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Definition of tasks

Clearly assign and delineate tasks to ensure efficient work distribution and avoid overlaps.

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Overview of required resources

Organizing the project into manageable work packages and tasks gives you a good overview of the required personnel and budget, which enables effective resource planning.

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Capture project goals

Provide a common goal for all project participants to work toward.

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Increased efficiency

Provide a common goal for all project participants to work toward.

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Improved communication

What are the disadvantages of a work breakdown structure?

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Time required for setup

Creating a detailed work breakdown structure requires time and commitment from everyone involved in the project, which can be seen as an additional burden at the beginning of the project.

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Rigid structure

Once a WBS is created, its rigid structure can make it difficult to adapt to unforeseen changes during the course of the project.

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Lack of consideration for uncertainty

The WBS tends not to adequately account for uncertainties or unforeseen events. This can lead to problems when project requirements change, or new risks arise.

Example of a Work Breakdown Structure

Work breakdown structures are used in a variety of industries and projects to provide a structured and hierarchical representation of the organizational elements of a project.

Work Breakdown Structure for a Software Development Project

A time-oriented work breakdown structure for software development could be divided into three successive phases.

  1. In the first phase, the concept, the requirements for the software are analyzed. The basic structures and architecture of the software are defined. The result of this phase is a detailed concept that serves as the basis for subsequent development.
  2. The second phase, software development, includes the actual programming of the software.
  3. In the third phase, the test phase, the functionality of the software is tested and checked to see if it meets the requirements defined in the concept. Only after successful testing is the software released and delivered.

Interesting Blog Articles

Gantt Chart
Blog Article | 02/26/24

5 Examples of Using Gantt Charts    

Gantt charts have established themselves as the standard for visualizing projects. We present application examples.

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Five Benefits of Agile Project Management
Blog Article | 05/21/24

Five Benefits of Agile Project Management 

The five biggest advantages of agile project management – and how users can benefit from it.  

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