Optimizing work breakdown structures in Microsoft Office Project 2003

January 2006

By Robert A. Happy, CEO, Project Management Practice, Inc.

Applies to:
Microsoft Office Project Standard 2003
Microsoft Office Project Professional 2003

In this article

What is a WBS, and why is it essential to successful project management?

The WBS fit in Project

Techniques for developing your WBS

WBS structures and formats

Use WBS functionality in Project

Save a WBS as a template

The WBS balancing act

Ultimately, the success or failure of any project depends on how effectively you are able to work within the given constraints of scope, time, and resources or cost. One of the crucial tools for project management success is the work breakdown structure (or WBS). The WBS operates as a primary tool in successful scope management, while simultaneously leading to effective scheduling and staffing of projects. Planning, organizing, and controlling all of the various phases, tasks, and milestones of a project is no easy task — but no tools will help you handle the challenge better than the WBS and Microsoft Project.

This article explores some of the key concepts and techniques involved in using Microsoft Office Project 2003 to create a WBS and to optimize its application. The article will also explain how to create standardized templates, basing them on a core WBS that reflects a frequently encountered project process or application area. Using such templates can help to create a consistent approach, both within your department and across your organization, and thus significantly increase efficiency as you move from one project to the next.

What is a WBS, and why is it essential to successful project management?

A project is defined as "a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service." Successful projects must meet or exceed the expectations of customers, internal or external. Such success is based on achieving goals in the form of deliverables (project output, products or services) within a given time frame and cost. The WBS is a hierarchical representation of the key components (or work packages) that must be accomplished to deliver the full scope of the project in accordance with customer expectations.

Defining the WBS involves subdividing the major project deliverables into smaller, more manageable components. Proper use of the WBS in project planning and execution will help ensure successful scheduling and allocation of resources. Project management can generally be broken down into a five-step process, as outlined in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide).

Diagram of five-step process

The WBS is an essential tool at each stage of the process. Accurately building the WBS not only clearly identifies what is within the scope of the project, but also — and possibly even more importantly — clearly identifies what is not within that scope. Whatever is not included in the WBS is outside the scope of the project. Proper WBS definition provides a "roadmap" to help you navigate through a project's life cycle, from initiating and planning to implementing and closing.

A WBS is the deconstruction of a project into more manageable pieces. Therefore, it should be easy to trace the WBS back to the organization's mission-critical activities. Each project should be clearly aligned with the strategic goals and initiatives of the organization; and in turn, the strategic goals and initiatives should directly support the overall mission that your organization is set up to accomplish in the first place.

Diagram of mission, strategy, and projects

Think of your organization's mission as the "Why" of the organization’s existing in the first place, and organization strategy as the high-level direction of "What" the organization intends to do about that "Why." Projects are the supporting components of your strategy, which answer "How" you are going to accomplish your strategic initiatives, goals, scorecards, and overall program objectives. Finally, each project is a bigger piece of work that is broken down into the smaller, more manageable pieces that you organize within your WBS.

Project managers face critical challenges, including the following:

  • Develop realistic timelines, and then deliver on time.
  • Adhere to a standardized process or methodology.
  • Maintain an appropriate level of buy-in and support.
  • Inform and align multiple stakeholders.
  • Obtain the right resources, in terms both of quantity and of quality.
  • Meet cost and return-on-investment (ROI) goals.
  • Manage scope creep and other changes.
  • Track progress and identify problems.
  • Satisfy customers and meet their expectations.

An effective WBS is your primary tool for handling these challenges and critical success factors, and Microsoft Project is the best place to develop and maintain that WBS.

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The WBS fit in Microsoft Project

To be effective in project management generally, and in Microsoft Project specifically, it is essential to understand the core concepts of creating, maintaining, and sometimes even reusing a WBS. Learning how to manage the multiple activities and tasks that you are responsible for, with the project goals always in view, will make the difference between failure and success.

Microsoft Project provides you with easy-to-use tools and wizards that facilitate every aspect of creating and maintaining your WBS. However, the creation of a WBS is a complex endeavor, requiring not only an understanding of the project management software, but also a firm grasp both of WBS development techniques and of the scope and nature of the specific project at hand. Sometimes the difficulty of integrating those two latter elements can lead to users’ frustration being misdirected toward the software.

In fact, there is no tool that is easier to use for creating and maintaining a WBS than Microsoft Project. Using the program is not the difficult part; the difficult part is knowing both what to put into your WBS, and how to put it in and organize it. One big mistake that planners sometimes make is just to open Microsoft Project and type their project activities randomly into the Task Name field, paying little attention to the organization of the elements they are entering. Such a slapdash approach usually results in a poor representation of the project scope, as well as an inefficient use of a powerful project management and communication tool.

The fundamental idea to keep in mind is that the WBS must represent both the total scope of the project and the efficient organization of the project’s various components. That is the sort of WBS that will lead to the successful completion of the project’s final deliverables, and the sort that Microsoft Project is especially proficient at helping you to create. This article will get you off on the right foot.

And once you develop a WBS that follows a standard methodology or approach, you can save that WBS as a Microsoft Project template and reuse it to organize future projects. Such templates can be shared across your organization, and can help ensure standardization and consistency in project management.

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Techniques for developing your WBS

There are different approaches to developing a WBS, which include:

  • Deliverables-based (product or service)
  • Functional-group-based
  • Other WBS approaches

The deliverables-based WBS

Every project has final deliverables. A deliverables-based approach to developing your WBS focuses on those final deliverables, asking the question: What are the key interim deliverables that need to be accomplished along the way? Each interim deliverable becomes a major level 1 component in the WBS. If you have a hard time thinking of interim deliverables, think of key milestones — those probably define your level 1 activities. After you define each level 1 component, you can continue to break down this coarse-grained activity into more fine-grained ones.

(0) Final Deliverable

1.0 Interim Deliverable 1

  • 1.1 Task 1
  • 1.2 Task 2
  • 1.3 Task n
  • 1.4 Key Milestone — Deliverable Achieved

2.0 Interim Deliverable 2

  • 2.1 Task 1
  • 2.2 Task 2
  • 2.3 Task n
  • 2.4 Milestone — Deliverable Achieved

3.0 Interim Deliverable n

The functional-group-based WBS

Sometimes it is more appropriate to develop a WBS that is based on the organization of the functional groups that are working on the project. You can create a major WBS branch for each specific functional group. While this may be appropriate for a given project scenario, the project manager should be aware that this approach may create isolated silos on the project team and take away focus from the final deliverable.

(0) Project Name

1.0 Function A

  • 1.1 Task 1
  • 1.2 Task 2
  • 1.3 Task n
  • 1.4 Key Milestone — Functional Work Achieved

2.0 Function B

  • 2.1 Task 1
  • 2.2 Task 2
  • 2.3 Task n
  • 2.4 Milestone — Functional Work Achieved

3.0 Function n

Other WBS approaches

Deliverables-based and functional-group-based are the two most popular approaches to developing a WBS. Geography-based WBS development is not as common, but occurs when the project is disbursed geographically, with different locations responsible for different components or deliverables. A timephased WBS focuses more on time buckets (such as Quarter 1 and Quarter 2), which represent level 1 components. Quite often, project managers use an approach that combines the preceding techniques, applying separate techniques at separate levels within a WBS. The key is to be consistent at each level.

The first challenge is to define the first level. How that first level is defined will dictate how the rest of the WBS will be organized.

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WBS structures and formats

A WBS can be displayed in any of a variety of formats. Most often, a WBS is displayed in an outline structure, a network diagram, or a tree structure. Microsoft Project usually displays the WBS in an outline structure or a network diagram. You can use Microsoft Office Visio 2003 to display the WBS in a tree structure.

WBS outline structure

Microsoft Project lends itself to the development of the hierarchical WBS because of its default method for entering and organizing tasks — in an outline on the Gantt Chart. As you can see in the following figure, the WBS coding structure corresponds with the work packages in a manner analogous to that by which you might outline the headings, subheadings, and paragraphs in a report. You maintain the WBS in the Task Name column in Project, and use the indenting and outdenting tools to create levels of phases, tasks, and milestones. This default format is known as the WBS outline structure.

Task Name column with WBS outline structure

As each component is broken down into more detail, you can see new levels in the WBS being developed. Each level collapses or "rolls up" into the one above it. As a result, you get multiple levels of detail for each project. Level 0 represents the project level, while level 1 represents the highest or coarsest level of detail. At this level you usually see the big pieces or interim deliverables. For example, you may see things like requirements, design, develop, testing, quality assurance, or rollout at level 1. Level 2 and beyond descend from the coarse-grained view to a more fine-grained one. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, and on the WBS methodology that you are following, a typical project may have from four to six levels of detail.

Display outline numbers for tasks

  1. On the View menu, click a sheet view, such as the Task Sheet view.

To use a view that is not on the View menu, click More Views, click the view that you want to use in the Views list, and then click Apply.

  1. On the Tools menu, click Options, and then click the View tab.
  2. Under Outline options for, select the Show outline number check box.

WBS in network diagram

You can also display the WBS in a network diagram view in Microsoft Project. This allows you to view the WBS in a flow-structure format, illustrating how the WBS components fit together.

WBS displayed in network diagram view

You don't need to explicitly create the network diagram. Project converts your outline format automatically. To view the network diagram in Microsoft Project, click Network Diagram on the View menu.

WBS tree structure

A WBS is also sometimes presented in a form that resembles an organization chart, known as a tree structure. In the same way that an organization chart is people-oriented, the WBS tree structure is task-oriented. The WBS should not be confused with the method of presentation — merely drawing an unstructured activity list in chart form does not make it a WBS. In a WBS, each descending level represents an increasingly detailed description of the project elements that must be completed to satisfy the project scope. In Microsoft Project 2003, you can export your WBS to Microsoft Visio to display it in a WBS tree or chart structure.

WBS tree or chart structure in Visio

To use Visio to display your WBS:

  1. In Project, click the Visio WBS Chart Wizard button on the Analysis toolbar.

If you don't see the Analysis toolbar, do the following:

  1. On the View menu, click Toolbar.
  2. In the Toolbar list, click Analysis.

A check mark appears next to the name of the toolbar when the toolbar is displayed.

  1. Follow the steps in the wizard to create a tree structure WBS in Visio from your outlined WBS in Project.

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Use WBS functionality in Microsoft Project

Once you have identified the approach that you are using to develop your WBS, and have established the scope, milestones, and major deliverables of the project, you are ready to enter the WBS information into Microsoft Project. Your WBS will then effectively drive both your schedule and your resource requirements. In Project 2003, the WBS is typically displayed in the Gantt Chart view in an outline format, in which major pieces become summary tasks, while detail or lower-level WBS elements are indented as subtasks beneath the more inclusive tasks.

The most effective way to enter a WBS and generate a schedule and budget in Microsoft Project is to use the following approach:

  1. Enter WBS elements into the Task Name column.
  2. Outline WBS elements by using the Indent and Outdent tools.
  3. Estimate duration at the lowest level of detail.
  4. Set dependencies between the WBS elements.
  5. Add resources and costs to the WBS elements.

When applying this approach, it is most efficient to perform one step completely before going on to the next step. In Microsoft Project, we call this "working the plan one column at a time." This article primarily focuses on the WBS elements that are dealt with in steps 1 and 2 of the preceding process. To learn more about steps 3, 4 and 5, see Create a Project plan in 5 easy steps.

Enter the WBS elements into the Task Name column

Usually project managers, leaders, planners, or coordinators are responsible for entering and maintaining WBS phases, tasks, and milestones in such as way as to accurately reflect the unique qualities and conditions of each project. This may involve adding or deleting phases, tasks, or milestone directly in the Task Name column.

A task is a work activity or event which has both a defined start and a defined end or duration, and which also produces a measurable result or end product. Tasks represent the lowest level of detail in a WBS.

 Tip   The most common place to enter WBS elements is the table area of the Gantt Chart view. For more information about working with tasks in the Gantt Chart view, see Copy or move a task or resource and Remove a task.

Outline the WBS elements to establish hierarchy

As you enter WBS elements in the Task Name column, take advantage of the easy-to-use outlining tools in Project to create the various levels of detail in your WBS. Outlining organizes the structure of a project by showing the relationship between tasks. When outlining, broad categories provide a heading, and the more specific tasks that the broad category contains are nested or "demoted" under it. Demoting and promoting of tasks defines the outline's hierarchical structure.

Outlining creates summary tasks that provide broad categories under which you can organize more specific tasks. The cost of all tasks under one summary task are added together to make the cost of the summary task; the start and ending dates of the summary task span the dates of all subordinate tasks; and the summary task duration takes into account the time needed to perform all tasks that the summary task contains. Project then calculates the summary information, and displays it along with the summary task.

You can create an outline by first listing your summary tasks, and only later entering the various subtasks that they comprise. You can also build the outline by inserting summary tasks into an existing list of subtasks, or by typing all tasks at once and indenting the subordinates later in a separate pass.

However, sometimes it is difficult to identify the most appropriate WBS elements to manage the project. The following are general guidelines for defining the levels of detail for your plan:

  • Is the WBS structure compatible with your organization's reporting requirements and management systems? Upper management generally requires less detail, while team members usually require more detail. Those requirements for more detail should drive your lower WBS elements.
  • Is the WBS based on deliverables? If not, what is the justification for using another approach?
  • Can deliverables and task descriptions be readily understood by project stakeholders?
  • Is there enough detail to estimate resource requirements?
  • Is there enough detail to estimate timeline requirements?
  • Are all related items on the same vertical branch?
  • Do the lower-level elements fully describe the upper level?
  • Does the WBS detail allow you to effectively manage project risks and drive key issues?
  • Does the WBS provide for the most effective way to plan for and track the project scope, timeline, and budget?

After you enter tasks in the task list, you can organize and structure your project by applying outlining, which you can use to hide or show tasks, or to show the relationship between tasks. Keep the following in mind when you create an outline:

  • Create your outline by indenting tasks that share characteristics or that will be completed in the same time frame under a summary task. You can use summary tasks to show the major phases and subphases in the project. Summary tasks summarize the data of their subtasks, which are the tasks grouped beneath them. You can indent tasks by as many levels as you need to, to accurately reflect the organization of your project.
  • Not all summary task values show the combined total of your subtask values. While some summary task values (such as cost and work) represent the total subtask values, others (such as duration and baseline) do not. For example, Project calculates the duration of a summary task as the total work time between the earliest start date and the latest finish date of its subtasks.

Summary task

Callout 1

This summary task information summarizes the period between the earliest start and latest finish date of all the included subtasks. It does not show the sum of all of the subtask durations (duration: The total span of active working time that is required to complete a task. This is generally the amount of working time from the start to finish of a task, as defined by the project and resource calendar.).

Because Project calculates summary task values automatically, most of them cannot be edited manually. If you need to change a summary task's values, such as its duration, update the individual subtasks. Summary task values are then recalculated.

Outline tasks

  1. On the View menu, click Gantt Chart.
  2. In the Task Name field, click the task that you want to indent (move to a lower level in the hierarchy) or outdent (move to a higher level in the hierarchy).
  3. Do one of the following:
    • Click Indent Button image to indent (demote) the task.
    • Click Outdent Button image to outdent (promote) the task.

By default, summary tasks are bold and outdented, and subtasks are indented beneath them.


  • Placing tasks in a hierarchical order does not automatically create task dependencies between them. To create task dependencies, the tasks must be linked.
  • To undo outlining, outdent all of your subtasks and lower-level summary tasks until all of your tasks are at the same outline level.
  • After rearranging linked tasks in your outlined schedule, the task dependencies that you set previously may no longer be relevant, and you may need to update them.
  • You can indent or outdent a task quickly by using the mouse. To do this, point to the first letter of the task name. When the pointer changes to a double-headed arrow, either drag right to indent the task, or drag left to outdent the task.

Project assigns unique outline numbers for each task, based on that task's current location in the task list hierarchy. You can display built-in outline numbers along with the name of the task.

  1. On the View menu, click a sheet view, such as the Task Sheet view.

To use a view that is not on the View menu, click More Views, click the view that you want to use in the Views list, and then click Apply.

  1. On the Tools menu, click Options, and then click the View tab.
  2. Under Outline options for, select the Show outline number check box.


  • You can also display outline numbers in a separate Outline Number field so that you can compare outline numbers to another field, such as an outline code field created for accounting codes that are assigned to tasks at various outline levels.
  • Built-in outline numbers, displayed along with the task in the Task Name field or in the Outline Number field, cannot be edited.

Determine the project milestones

You should always add a milestone task at the end of each level 1 WBS element, and others elsewhere as required. Milestones are important events or dates in a project, but they have no work associated with them. Examples may include events such as requirements defined, testing completed, design approved, or even project completed.

Gantt Chart with completed milestone highlighted

Show or hide project summary tasks

It is important to display the top-level summary task in your project plan. This will allow you to review the sum total of your project information based on whatever table and data fields you have displayed, such as duration, start, finish, work hours, cost, and so on.

The project summary task displays summary information about an entire project at the top of the Gantt Chart view, in a single row that has its own summary task bar.

  1. On the Tools menu, click Options, and then click the View tab.
  2. To show or hide project summary tasks, under Outline options for, select or clear the Show Project summary task check box.


  • To hide all summary tasks (including summary tasks for subprojects), on the Tools menu, click Options, and then click the View tab. Clear the Show summary tasks box.
  • To hide specific subtasks, select the subtasks, and then click Hide Subtasks Button image.
  • To show only part of the outline, click Show Show, and then click the outline level number up to which you want to view.

Once you have set up the WBS, you can identify your schedule by estimating your task durations and dependencies. And once you have entered these estimates, Microsoft Project will calculate your start and finish dates for you. The final step is to add resources and their associated costs.

Because the WBS represents the scope of the entire project, every time there is a change request, that change will impact at least one of three things in your project — the tasks, the duration (time), or the cost (hours and/or dollars). As a result, your WBS in Microsoft Project will serve as your primary tool for managing change. For example, if a customer requests an additional feature, this will impact your WBS by adding additional components, or by adding time and cost to existing components, or both. All of this can be easily tracked in Project by using baselining and progress updating tools.

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Save a WBS as a template

Once you create a WBS for a project of a standard type, you can use that same WBS to develop a Project template that can be applied to other, similar projects in the future, helping planners build schedules more quickly. Such a template, based on your WBS, can help establish a consistent project management approach within your group.

Once you have optimized the WBS, you can save it as a template either with or without estimated durations and dependencies. The more experience you have with a specific type of project, the more effective your template will be. The basic idea for a template is to create a WBS that can represent a typical project for the industry (manufacturing, transportation, finance, pharmaceuticals, etc.) or department (information technology, marketing, operations, human resources, etc.) in which the project will be completed.

When you use the same template repeatedly, you have constant opportunities to improve it. You may find that you want to formalize a process for capturing suggestions and recommendations, and for creating specialized versions of the template. If you plan on implementing a template across your department, or across your entire organization, such a process can be immensely valuable.

To save your WBS as a template, do the following:

  1. On the File menu, click Save as.
  2. In the Save in box, select the drive and folder where you want to save the template.
  3. In the File name box, type a name for the template.
  4. In the Save as type box, click Template.
  5. Click Save.
  6. Select the check boxes for any data that you want to remove from your project file.
  7. Click Save.

Of course, however useful a template is, it is still only a starting point. Because each project is unique, you will still need to review and modify the project plan based on the techniques described in this article. When it comes time to initiate a new project from a WBS that was created from an existing template, use the following procedure:

  • Step 1: Modify phases, tasks, and milestones (based on uniqueness of scope).
  • Step 2: Modify WBS levels and outlining (add levels for more details).
  • Step 3: Modify duration estimates (based on size of project).
  • Step 4: Modify task dependencies (based on unique task relationships).

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The WBS balancing act

One of the biggest challenges that you face when you set up a WBS is balancing the details against the big picture. Too much detail may actually add levels of unnecessary administration and confusion, while too little detail may not add enough value to manage all of the stakeholders, issues, risks, and scope of the project.

Image of Too Much and Too Little on balancing scales

In the end, creating a WBS is not an easy task. You need to understand both the concepts and the techniques of WBS creation, and you also need access to the subject matter experts who have the knowledge of what goes into achieving the final deliverables in terms of phases, tasks, and milestones. Balancing project scope and the requirements of project stakeholders against the need to drive project issues and take corrective action when necessary is clearly both an art and a science — but with a well-made and up-to-date WBS, both the art and the science are a whole lot more possible.

About the author     Over the past 15 years, Robert Happy has consulted with hundreds of organizations involving thousands of employees to establish effective project management practices. This includes both private and public sector organizations spanning many industries and working with all levels of staff, from project teams to senior executives. Robert has focused much of his time working with these organizations on developing project management organizations, processes, and systems involving Project both for the desktop and for the enterprise.

Applies to:
Project 2003