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Five Tips to Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

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This content is from the Method123 weekly email dated 2017.12.01

Five Tips to Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is the first step to create a project schedule. The WBS is used to uncover all the work. Understanding the project work, and the project management work, gives you a total picture of the project.

Use the following five techniques to create a solid WBS for your project.

Do Not Make the WBS Too Tall

If you envision the WBS being built with post-it notes on the wall, it is important that you not let the WBS get too tall (This could also be called "too deep"). Depending on your WBS approach, it may take you two to four levels to get the deliverables defined. The general rule of thumb is that the number of levels for each deliverable should not exceed five and even five might be too many.

Create a WBS Dictionary for Large Projects

Normally a dictionary would not be needed, but if your WBS has hundreds (or thousands) of detailed activities, there may just be too much to keep track of by hand. If the WBS is very large, it might make sense to place all of the important information in a WBS dictionary. Once the WBS information is entered into a tool, the tool can also help to keep track of changes to the work so that you can trace how the change impacts the WBS and the schedule. Having the WBS in a tool also makes the information easier to reuse for future projects.  

Use Your Summary Activities for Schedule Milestones

Summary activities are the ones that are broken down into more detail. Detailed activities are not broken down further. When you create your schedule, you should only include the detailed activities, not the summary ones. For the sake of clarity and readability, it often makes sense to include these higher-level summary activities in the schedule to represent a logical roll-up of the detailed activities. A summary activity that represents the completion of a major deliverable could also be included in the schedule as a milestone.

Break Summary Activities into Two or More Detailed Activities

Since you chose to break a summary activity into smaller activities, it does not make sense to only have one detailed activity under a summary one. If you do, the detailed activity represents the exact same work as the summary activity. This does not buy you anything. If you are going to break work down into a lower level, make sure you always identify two or more items at the lower level.

The Detailed Activities Should be Written as Action Oriented Activities

The detailed activities on your activity-based WBS are ultimately moved to the schedule. For that reason, it is easier if the detailed activities in your WBS are action oriented – just as activities in your schedule would be. For example instead of stating a detailed WBS activity as “conference”, you should state it as “organize a conference”, or “attend a conference”.   

WBS's are interesting structures that serve as the backbone for creating a schedule. There are many more techniques as well, but these five provide a good starting point.  
At TenStep we are dedicated to helping organizations achieve their goals and strategies through the successful execution of critical business projects. We provide training, consulting and products for organizations to help them set up an environment where projects are successful. This includes help with strategic planning, portfolio management, program / project management, Project Management Offices (PMOs) and project lifecycles. For more information, visit or contact us at
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