Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) Template: Excel, Word and MSP

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a view of the entire scope of a project broken down into smaller work blocks, in a hierarchical structure. The completion of the work blocks will result in completion of the deliverable, and achievement of the objectives. It is imperative that 100% of the needed work will appear in the WBS diagram, and that there isn’t any overlap between different the work blocks.

The WBS isn’t a project plan: It specifies who does what, not when or how.
Work Breakdown Structure
Work Breakdown Structure

Best Practices when working with WBS

  • Top-Down: The preferred method of building a WBS file is by starting with the high level plan. Each task in the HLP should be represented in the first tier of the WBS. Then break each task into smaller work blocks.
  • 100% rule: Make sure that all of the needed effort that goes into completing the project appears in the WBS. This means that if the WBS is all done, then the project is as well.
  • No overlap: Each WBS block must have one clear owner, and no task from the project’s scope should appear twice in the WBS.
  • Deliverable driven: The WBS shouldn’t be driven by effort or action, but by deliverable or outcomes.

  • Look: Prefer a graphical look over a textual one, which clearly states the hierarchy.
  • Grammar: Use nouns over verbs. For example: “Analysis Document” over “Analysis Gathering”.
  • Levels: A WBS should contain at least 2 hierarchy levels, otherwise it is a to-do list.
  • KIS (Keep it Simple): Don’t go into a lot of detail, try not to create more than 6-7 tiers of work blocks.
  • If you have access to Visio, prefer it over Word.

How to start creating your Work Breakdown Structure

  • Always work with the lead of the task when breaking it into smaller blocks, this way their input will be taken into consideration resulting in a high level of commitment.
  • Remember not to create any overlap between the smaller blocks (like best practice #3).
  • Use a consistent coding scheme to allow easier identifying of the parent / child relationship between work blocks.

WBS Excel Template
WBS Excel Template

Now lets understand this with an example

Breaking down the “Testing” tasks requires understanding the process of testing the software that is being coded by the build team, and the full scope of the testing work. 

There are a few good sources for this information: The SOW, input from the testing team, past similar projects, etc.

Once it is understood what the full scope and process are, it is then good practice to see if any of the smaller work blocks have different owners. If yes, then a further breaking down is needed. 

For example let’s examine the “writing scripts” work block: there are 5 modules which need to do this task, each with its own team leader. 

This means that this work block has 5 different owners, and is in contrast to best practice #3. The result is that this work block is broken down into 5 smaller work blocks, one for each module. 

Since the scripts are all for the same procedure, it isn’t necessary to break them down further.
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Working with WBS in MS Project

To add the WBS column, simply right click anywhere on the header of the table, and choose “Insert Column”  or go to the “Format” ribbon and click on the “Insert Column” button. 

Then scroll down to find WBS, or type it in the header of the column.

The default column will present a basic numeric hierarchy, starting at 1 and adding a dot and an additional number for each indentation. 
For example the top summary task will be automatically numbered “1”, and the tasks under it will be numbered “1.1”, “1.2”, etc. If one of the tasks has a subtask, then an additional dot and number will be added. 

For example “1.2.1” means that the second task under the first summary tasks has a subtask. Each additional summary task will be in sequential numbering order, for example the second summary task will be numbered “2”, and so on.

Customizing the WBS Column

Once the column is added to the table, it can be customized pretty easily. First go to the “Project” ribbon, and then click on the “WBS->Define Code” button. The following menu will appear – 

In the top field of the menu the user will be able to see a preview of the customized WBS code that will appear in each row.
In the second field the user can add a prefix for each WBS code, for example “Dev” for a development work plan. It is recommended to add a dash “-“ at the end of the prefix.

Working with WBS in MS Project
Working with WBS in MS Project
The “Level” area is where it’s possible to change the appearance of the WBS column by using the following three columns – 
  • Sequence”: The user can choose between numbers, uppercase letters, lowercase letters and characters. If the user chooses numbers in the top row, uppercase letters in the second row and characters in the third then the WBS sequence will be: 1.A.*. The numbers and letters are sequential (ordered), but the characters are random.
  • Length”: Here it is possible to limit the number of numbers, letters or characters. The default is “Any”, which means that MSP will add characters as needed. If the user chooses “2” in the numbers row, then 1 will turn into 01. If the user chooses “3” in the uppercase row, then A will turn into AAA. It is recommended to leave the default “Any”.

  • Separator”: Determines which separator will separate the numbers, letters and characters. There are four to choose from, and the dash is the recommended choice.
At the bottom of the menu there are 2 check boxes, and it is recommended to check them both. This will result in MSP automatically adding a WBS number to any rows that are added, and that it will make sure that there aren’t any duplicates in the WBS code.

The menu below will result in the following WBS structure: Dev-“Number”-“Uppercase Letter”-“Character”.

Swapnil Wale

Written by

Swapnil Wale is an IT Professional based in Sydney, Australia with over 10 years of experience in technology and project management. He is a passionate blogger and focuses on project management and BRMS articles.

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