Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): Definition & Examples

Instructor: Shawn Ferguson

Shawn is a recent graduate from Walsh College's MBA program in Michigan. He is currently an instructor at his current company and previously was a substitute teacher.

This lesson will discuss the definition and importance of the work breakdown structure, or WBS in terms of overall project management. The work breakdown structure is the idea of taking a project and breaking it down to manageable portions and pieces for completion.

Work Breakdown Structure

Imagine that you are in charge of a project. The project is to build an aircraft carrier for the United States Navy. . . no easy task. How on Earth are you going to be able to keep track of the activities that you need to accomplish? Keep in mind, you also have to accomplish those tasks on time, within budget and to specifications. The answer is to use the work breakdown structure. The idea of the work breakdown structure, or WBS, is to create smaller and manageable groups of activities that can be easily tracked and accounted for. This breakdown allows you to delegate and manage small groups of activities that add up to the completion of the project. Rather than tackling the whole idea of building an aircraft carrier, have teams work on individual activities or groups of activities. The project becomes manageable rather than a nightmare.

Origins of WBS

WBS was created by the United States Military to develop new weapons technology. There was no set way to create and manage a project during the 1950s when the strategy of WBS was first conceived. It was not until later in the 1980s that non-military based companies began using the idea of WBS. The PMBOK, or Project Management Body of Knowledge has a great many examples and discussions on using WBS to help complete projects. During your project management education be sure to use the PMBOK as much as possible. The PMBOK is where the entire project management concept, structure and topic is covered.

WBS & Project Management

WBS fits into project management in the project scope management knowledge area. Project scope management is used to create the overall activities that are included in the project and the activities that should not be included in the project. Like we covered before, WBS is the process of subdividing project deliverables and project work into smaller, more manageable components. Deliverables are the final products that the project was started for. The deliverable for our aircraft carrier project would be a working aircraft carrier, the whole reason to work on the project.

How Does WBS Work?

The work breakdown structure starts as very high level activities. Take our previous example of creating an aircraft carrier. The WBS would start by grouping main components such as the aircraft carrier deck, propulsion, weapons, aircraft launching systems, radar, etc. Now each system needs to be broken down even further. The propulsion system cannot be added to the ship until the foundation of the hull is ready, the landing deck cannot be added until most of the ship is already completed. These activities need to be estimated, budgeted, initiated, scheduled, monitored and then controlled for the project to work. The WBS helps keep everything organized and situated in the flow of needed work. This way the confusion is kept to a minimum on a large project like manufacturing an aircraft carrier.

One important aspect of WBS is that it considers the deliverable or end result as what is important, not the actual act of working on something. The completion of installing a radar system would be a part of the WBS - not the smallest activity of installing a single wire or computer terminal, but the overall result of those combined actions.

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