Chapter 7 – Scheduling Resources and Budgets

7.3. Work Breakdown Structures

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a hierarchical outline of all the deliverables involved in completing a project. The WBS is part of a project scope statement. The creation of a WBS is one of the first steps in organizing and scheduling the work for a project.

The WBS is a breakdown of a project into sub-deliverables and eventually work-packages. Each level of the WBS, represents more detailed information about a project. Figure 7-1 shows how the project is broken down into major deliverables and then into sub-deliverables and work packages.

Work Breakdown structure of the decision to go on vacation includes: researching destinations, recruiting family members and assessing costs.
Figure 7‑1: The WBS is an outline that shows how the deliverables, sub-deliverables and work packages relate to the final project.

Deliverables vs. Work Packages

Deliverables and sub-deliverables are things such as physical objects, software code, or events. In a WBS, deliverables and sub-deliverables are represented by nouns. Work packages are assignable units of work that will be performed to create the related deliverable. A work package can be assigned to one particular project team member, one outside contractor, or another team. The work packages maybe further broken down into activities or tasks by the project team or the experts who will perform that work (see WBS dictionary later in this section).

Work packages are action oriented and will be represented by phrases containing verbs. The cost of a deliverable is the sum of all of its related sub-deliverables.  As well, a work package is somewhat similar to specific tasks that need completed and can be delegated to the appropriate person.

Since the WBS provides a natural way to summarize (or “rollup”) the costs and labor involved for various sub deliverables, it also provides the project team with the information need to determine whether some deliverables would be better performed by an outside specialist who could deliver the item or service more cost-effectively.

Watch this video: How to Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) – 4 Step Guide by Wrike [2:42] below. The transcript is available on YouTube.

WBS Numbering or Coding

Project managers use the WBS during project execution to track the status of deliverables and work packages. The items in a WBS are numbered so it is easy to understand the deliverable, or sub-deliverable, to which any particular work package is related.

This numbering system allows for easy reference and filtering. For example, an electrician working on the Warehouse project only needs to receive details and updates that are related to work packages that start with 2.2 (the Electrical sub-deliverable).  This would be the same number that the Accounting Department would use for billing.


Decomposition is the process used to break the project scope of work into the deliverables, sub-deliverables, and work packages involved in completing the project.

The process of decomposition begins with identifying the highest-level deliverables. These deliverables are then broken into sub-deliverables. Many layers of sub-deliverables may be needed for a project. A general rule of thumb is that if the WBS has more than 5 layers of sub-deliverables, the project team should reassess and try to simplify the WBS structure (often by changing the way higher level deliverables are grouped and broken down).

Once the lowest level of deliverable has been reached, the next step is to break the sub-deliverables into work packages. The work packages describe the work that needs to be done to create the sub-deliverable. Remember that work packages typically contain verbs, and can be assigned to a person, team or contractor.

Once the project team has drafted the WBS, they should ask themselves: ” If all the work packages were completed, and all the deliverables in this WBS were delivered, would the project be complete?” If the answer is no, then pieces of the WBS are still missing. If the answer is yes, then the project team can move on to creating the WBS dictionary, getting bottom-up estimates on time and resource requirements, and planning how to schedule the work.

The WBS Dictionary/Activity List

The WBS dictionary or sometimes called the Activity List provides detailed documentation about each work package including;

  • Who is responsible for completing the work package?
  • What resources will be needed to complete the work package?
  • What deliverable(s) is the work package contributing to?
  • What deadlines or milestones are associated with this work package?
  • What are the acceptance criteria for this work package?

When the WBS is created, not all of the information about the work packages is known (for example, the estimates for labor and material costs). Remember from Chapter One that the planning process continues throughout the execution of the project. As a result, the WBS dictionary is a “living document” that will be augmented, edited and updated as the project moves forward. Figure 7-2 is an example of a WBS Dictionary entry; note that several items will be added later in the planning process. The dictionary in Figure 7-2 includes the following columns: item number, description,  constraints, responsibility, milestone, schedule, resources, cost, quality, acceptance criteria, references and guidelines.

An example of a WSB Dictionary entry
Figure 7-2: WBS Dictionary entry example.(Click to enlarge)


5.4. Work Breakdown Structures” from Essentials of Project Management by Adam Farag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Strategic Project Management Copyright © 2022 by Debra Patterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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