How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure in MS Project

Haleema Qayyum


Haleema Qayyum

How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure in MS Project

Table of Contents

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is essential for getting a project off the ground. So, this beginner-friendly guide will help you understand the work breakdown structure and create one independently.

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a hierarchical decomposition of the project objectives into deliverable-oriented tasks. the project team executes it to accomplish the overall project goals.

Also, the WBS forms the backbone of all the project planning activities. The WBS divides the project work scope into smaller, manageable work packages for maintaining better control of the project activities.

WBS in MS Project

As you move from the higher levels of the WBS to the lower levels, the project’s definition gets more detailed, with the upper levels representing the project’s significant phases.

So, it is imperative to remember that the WBS represents 100% of all the work defined in the project scope. Moreover, the left out things are mostly out of range.

What is a WBS in MS Project?

A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a visual, hierarchical, and deliverable-oriented deconstruction of a project. It is a helpful diagram for project managers.

As it allows them to work backward from the final deliverable of a project and identify all the activities needed to achieve a successful project.

All the project steps are outlined in the organizational chart of a work breakdown structure, making it an essential project management tool for planning and scheduling.

The final deliverable rests on top of the diagram. The levels below subdivide the project scope to indicate the phases, deliverables, and tasks needed to complete the project.

Project managers use project management software to layout and execute a work breakdown structure.

When combined with a Gantt chart that incorporates WBS hierarchies, project management software can be especially effective for planning, scheduling, and executing projects.

Uses of the WBS

The WBS addresses the following requirements of the project:

  • Defining the project scope in terms of deliverables and components.
  • They provide the framework on which the project status and progress reports are based.
  • They facilitate communication regarding the project scope, schedule, risk, performance, cost, etc., with the stakeholders throughout the project lifecycle.
  • They provide inputs for other project management processes like estimation, scheduling, risk assessment, etc.

While creating the WBS, it is essential to make sure if the WBS format is in standard form across an entire project portfolio.

It makes retrieval of data from a specific project easy. Also, one cam make a repository comprising project for future reference over time.

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Why Use a WBS in MS Project Management?

There are several reasons why breaking down a large project is beneficial. It helps you to:

  • Estimate the cost of a project.
  • Establish dependencies.
  • Determine a project timeline and develop a schedule.
  • Write a statement of work (or SOW, one of your other acronyms).
  • Assign responsibilities and clarify roles.
  • Track the progress of a project.
  • Identify risk.

All of these benefits essentially arise from working with chunks of a project that you can accurately visualize rather than trying to digest and interpret a mysterious and overwhelming task in one fell swoop.

Tips for Making a WBS in MS Project Management

As you make a work breakdown structure, use the following rules for best results:

  • The 100% rule. The work represented by your WBS must include 100% of the work necessary to complete the overarching goal without having any extraneous or unrelated work. Also, child tasks must account for all of the work required to complete the parent task.
  • Mutually exclusive. Do not include a sub-task twice or account for any amount of work twice. Doing so would violate the 100% rule and result in miscalculations as you try to determine the resources necessary to complete a project.
  • The 8/80 rule. There are several ways to decide when a work package is small enough without being too small. This rule is one of the most common suggestions—a work package should take no less than eight hours of effort, but no more than 80.
  • Other laws suggest no more than ten days (which is the same as 80 hours if you work full time) or no more than a standard reporting period. In other words, if you report on your work every month, a work package should take no more than a month to complete.
  • When in doubt, apply the “if it makes sense” rule and use your best judgment.
  • Three levels. Generally speaking, a WBS should include about three levels of detail. Of course, some branches of the WBS will be more subdivided than others, but if most extensions have about three levels, your project’s scope and the level of detail in your WBS are about right.
  • Make assignments.  Every team or individual should take care of a work package. If you have made your WBS well, there will be no work overlap so that responsibilities will be clear
Tips for making a WBS

Components of the Work Breakdown Structure

The essential components of a WBS are as follows:

WBS Levels: Make sure, all the work on the project is categorized into hierarchical levels. The upper levels depict the project’s significant deliverables, and the lower levels represent the granular activities needed to achieve the deliverable. The number and complexity of the WBS levels are dependent on the size and nature of the project.

WBS Dictionary: The WBS dictionary is an essential part of the WBS, and it further details the activities of each element of the WBS.

It provides information about the work, activities, milestones, cost estimates, resources required, and contact information for each WBS element. The primary purpose of the WBS dictionary is to remove any ambiguity regarding the scope of work.

WBS Code Numbers: The WBS code number is a unique identifier for each element of the WBS and should be same. So that, it is expandable to accommodate any future revisions to the WBS.

Visual Representation Format: We can represent a WBS in several ways, depending on the ease of use for the project team and the organization. Typical formats for representing a WBS structure are following.

Outline View

In this format, the WBS uses different indentation levels, with an accompanying WBS code number for each element.

Tabular view: In this format, the hierarchical structure of the WBS, is represented with the help of a table’s columns

Tree structure view: In this format, the WBS uses a tree structure with each child element that connects to the parent element through a line. The parent defines a higher level which is decomposed into the child element.

WBS Element: Each component of the WBS and its attributes comprise a WBS element.

Work Package: It is the lowest level WBS component for each WBS branch. The work package includes the scheduled activities and milestones to complete the deliverable work package.

One of the main problems project managers face while creating a WBS is deciding on the correct size for a work package.

A work package that is too big would imply loose control of the activities. Similarly, if the work package is too small, it would consume a lot of effort to manage.

Therefore, the 8/80 rule, commonly followed by project managers, propagates that the work package’s size should not be less than 8 hours and not greater than 80 hours.

Creating a WBS in MS Project Using the Top-Down Methodology

A WBS can be created by using several tools and methodologies. One commonly used method for creating a WBS is the top-down methodology. The steps followed in the top-down approach are listed below:

Identify the final objective of the project. That involves a detailed analysis of the project scope document. In MS Project, type the name of the final goal in the Task Name field.

Evaluate the final deliverables that need to be created to achieve the objectives identified in step 1. First, enter the list of final deliverables in the Task Name field.

Next, indent all the sub-deliverables by using the forward arrow key in MS Project. Now, you will have the final deliverable comprising the sub-deliverables in MS Project.

Decompose the final deliverables into activities and continue this exercise until a level is reached (work package) to control and monitor the individual tasks. It would be best if you were careful to ensure that each work package contains only one deliverable.

Importance of Indentation

In MS Project, for each sub-deliverable, type the list of activities. Repeat this process till you reach the work package level. Make sure that you keep indenting each level. Indentation creates relationships between the deliverables and their component sub-deliverables.

MS Project automatically creates the WBS codes in the Outline Number field, based on each task/activity’s outline structure. These outline numbers change when you move the task to a different level or location.

Re-evaluate the entire WBS after a thorough brainstorming session with the project team and key stakeholders. The objective should be to achieve a consensus on the feasibility of the project planning exercise’s success, which will ensure your project’s success.

After several brainstorming sessions, this method enables the project manager and the team to elaborate on the WBS.

What are the Levels of a WBS?

A WBS in project management takes large, complex projects and breaks down the project’s scope into more manageable pieces to make it easier to plan, schedule, and deliver.

Therefore, there are tiers of project deliverables and tasks that are created to support projects’ planning, execution, and monitoring. There are four primary levels of a WBS, which are outlined below:

The Top Level:

The project title or final deliverable.

Controls Account:

The main project phases and deliverables.

Work Packages:

The group of tasks that lead to the controls accounts level.


The tasks needed to complete the work package.

These tiers are found within all the different types of a work breakdown structure.

What are the Types of WBS?

There are two main types of WBS: deliverable-based and phase-based. A deliverable-based WBS identifies the project’s deliverables and scope.

At the same time, the phase-based WBS displays the final deliverable on top, with the level below showing the five phases of a project (initiation, planning, execution, control, and closeout).

There are a few uncommon types of work breakdown structures as well:

  • A verb-oriented WBS defines the deliverables in terms of actions.
  • A noun-oriented WBS defines work in terms of components (this is also called a product breakdown structure).
  • A time-phased WBS breaks the project into phases for long-term projects.

A work breakdown structure is a very flexible tool. It can take the form of a simple numbered list (also known as an outline view), a bare tree diagram, or even a Gantt chart.

When a Gantt chart is part of an enormous project management tool, the WBS can segue into planning, assigning, monitoring, and tracking your team’s progress.

Why Use a WBS?

Making a WBS is the first step in developing a project schedule. It defines all the work that needs to be completed (and in what order) to achieve the project’s goals and objectives.

By visualizing your project in this manner, you and your resources can collaborate on defining mission-critical tasks, subtasks, and inter-dependencies between them.

A well-constructed WBS helps with critical project management processes such as cost estimation, resource allocation, and risk assessment.

Besides, a WBS helps avoid common project issues such as missed deadlines, scope creep, and cost overrun, among others.

In other words, a work breakdown structure serves as your map through complicated projects. For example, one project may include several phases of smaller sub-project.

Even those sub-projects can be broken down into deliverables, sub-deliverables, and work packages! In doing so, you gain clarity into the details needed to accomplish every aspect of your project.

What Constitutes a Work Breakdown Structure?

A typical work breakdown structure contains several vital components. They are as follows:

WBS Dictionary: A document that defines the various elements of the WBS. It’s an essential component of a WBS because it allows the project participants and stakeholders to understand the phases, deliverables, and work packages with more clarity.

Task Number & Description: Giving each task a number makes it easy to identify them. A description will help define the mission, which will provide direction for the team when it’s time to execute it.

Task Owner: The owner is the person, organization, or department that oversees the task from assignment to completion and ensures its proper execution.

Task Dependency: Some of the tasks on the path to the final deliverable will have to wait until another job is done or started before they can begin. That is called a “task dependency” and requires linking the two dependent tasks to avoid slippage later in the project.

Cost of Task: Every task will have a cost associated with it. You’ll want to note that to keep track of your budget.

Start, Finish, and Estimated Completion of Task: Add the start and finish dates for each task, and estimate the time you have on your schedule to execute it.

Task Status: The task’s status shows if the task is assigned or not, in progress, late or complete, which helps with tracking.

What is included in a WBS

How to Create a WBS in MS Project

There are five steps to creating a work breakdown structure. These are the significant steps, the bird’s-eye view of a WBS, which eventually gets down to the granular level. But it’s good to know the main constructive parts that construct a thorough WBS.

Define the project goals and objectives. Begin with the project charter—the scope, dreams, and participating in the project—determine what it is and describe it.

Next is the project phases: break the more comprehensive project statement of intent into a series of stages that will take it from conception to completion.

What are your deliverables? List them all and note what is necessary for those deliverables to be deemed successfully delivered (sub-deliverables, work packages, resources, participants, etc.).

Take your deliverables from above, break them down into every task, and subtask necessary to deliver them. Finally, make a list of all those tasks.

With the tasks now laid out, assign them to the team. Give each team member the tools, resources, and authority they need to do the job.

Watch this video if you prefer a visual and verbal explanation of this information on work breakdown structures.

What are the Different Types of Work Breakdown Structure Diagrams?

There isn’t just one way to make a WBS. In fact, there are, many different types. Here are a select few:

Work Breakdown Structure List

Also known as an outline view, this is a list of tasks or deliverables with subtasks. Therefore, it’s probably the simplest method to make a WBS, which is sometimes all you need.

The Work Breakdown Structure’s Tree Diagram

The most commonly seen version, the tree structure depiction of a WBS, is an organizational chart with all the same elements of the list (phases, deliverables, sub deliverables, and work packages) but represents the workflow or progress as defined by a diagrammatic representation. So, we’ll show an example of this in the next section.

Work Breakdown Structure Spreadsheet

While the classic WBS is a tree diagram, all the parts in that graphic are laid out in a spreadsheet, noting the different phases, tasks, or deliverables in columns and rows.

Work Breakdown Structure Gantt Chart

A Gantt chart is both a spreadsheet and a timeline. The Gantt chart is a WBS that can do more than a static spreadsheet or tree diagram. So, with a dynamic Gantt chart, you can link dependencies, set milestones, even put a baseline. Ultimately, that is the most common version of project management software.

Types of Work Breakdown Structure Diagrams

Integration of the WBS in MS Project Schedule

The WBS forms the backbone for several project management activities. For example, it provides valuable input for cost estimation, scheduling, and evaluating the project’s progress.

To integrate the WBS in the project schedule using MS Project, you need to add more information to the indented tree structure of the WBS that you have already created. Therefore, the vital information that you need to add includes:

  • Duration: The total time required to complete each task must be specified in the WBS.
  • Task Dependencies: The relationship between tasks is specified. You can establish the dependency by using the network diagram analysis done in the scheduling phase.
  • Constraints: You need to specify the constraints or limitations (if any) for each task. The regulations are also post-established in the schedule analysis phase.
  • Task Start Date and Task Finish Date: When you specify each task’s duration, MS Project automatically calculates the Task Start and Finish Dates.
  • Resource Names: You can specify the resources by clicking the Assign Resources button.
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End Note:

While integrating the WBS in the project plan, it is imperative to add the WBS dictionary. Therefore, the WBS dictionary helps integrate other project management processes with the project scope.

In addition, it serves as a valuable tool for clarifying the exact project requirements regarding the content of work, cost, milestones, etc.

A well-defined WBS can be a significant contributing factor in ensuring the success of your project. Also, it serves as the critical integrating factor between different project management processes. Moreover, it is considered as a foundation stone.

Frequently Asked Questions

How detailed should a WBS be?

Generally speaking, a WBS should include about three levels of detail. Of course, some branches of the WBS will be more subdivided than others, but if most extensions have about three levels, your project’s scope and the level of detail in your WBS are about right.

What is a WBS in MS Project?

WBS stands for a work breakdown structure. It is a type of chart which is commonly used in system engineering and project management. Therefore, the WBS diagram systematically breaks down and organizes a team’s work into smaller, manageable tasks.

What are the rules of the WBS?

100% rule: Every level of decomposition must make up 100% of the parent level. Also, it should have at least two child elements. Mutually exclusive: All aspects at a particular level in a WBS must be mutually exclusive. There must be no overlap in either their deliverables or their work.

What are the three levels of work breakdown structure?

The WBS contains 100% of all the work in the project. At the top level is the project’s ultimate goal; the second level includes the project objectives; the third level has the project outputs.

What Are the Types of WBS?

• First of all, a verb-oriented WBS defines the deliverables in terms of actions.
• Secondly, a noun-oriented WBS defines work in terms of components (this is also called a product breakdown structure).
• Last but not the least, a time-phased WBS breaks the project into phases for long-term projects.

Does every project need a WBS?

Every project has a WBS like they all have schedules and budgets. A good WBS is essential for defining the scope of a project. The WBS is the primary input in creating the project schedule, store, and risk plan.

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