Defining Work Breakdown Structures with Excel

Breakdown Structures

A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a way to analyze and follow a project, but is more than just a task list. It is a way to mirror pieces and deliverables in Excel from a project perspective. You can see the organization, responsibilities, control points, and project scope. It can even help with determining costs and project estimates.

A WBS can be developed from a task or deliverable orientation. Many of us look at projects as a group of tasks, which is easier to delineate in Excel. But, if you need to have your audience/stakeholders look at the WBS, then you might want to take the extra time to do a WBS from a deliverables standpoint. As you follow through the project in the WBS, you will be able to see the outline items for your Gantt schedule, if you need to create one.

Basics of Breakdown

The word that is most often used in the project breakdown is decomposition. You decompose a project by looking at each deliverable and then break it into steps. Start with the biggest milestones and work your way down to the smaller pieces.

Look at the whole project scope and then, from the top-down approach, look at the project components down to an 8/80 rule level for each item. The 8/80 rule says that you don’t define any smaller tasks that would take less than 8 hours or would be more than 80 hours in duration.

Excel Project List

In Excel, you can use a hierarchy diagram to create your visual of the project decomposition. If you want a more list-like approach, then you could input the following columns in a basic Excel spreadsheet, along with any specific columns that relate to your project or industry. These columns will help show the relationship between even the smallest tasks and where they need to happen in the project.

  • ID (can use as Task ID or Deliverable ID, depending on where you are in the project)
  • Description (Task or Deliverable)
  • Predecessor (of Task or Deliverable)
  • Current Owner
  • Current Owner role in process
  • Start Date
  • End Date
  • Percentage complete
  • Successor (or who the task moves to next) (See Figure 1)

Excel columns for WBS

Figure 1

If you choose to use the columns in a spreadsheet, you will want to make sure that you format the data cells for each column appropriately for your numbers or text. For example, you might want the percent complete column to be formatted for percent with two decimal places or even no decimal places. You will want the Date columns to have that specific date formatting, too. You can even choose to use Conditional Formatting in your WBS as an additional way to highlight the data you enter.

Hierarchy Diagram

If you choose to create a diagram in Excel, then you can use the SmartArt feature. It is located on the Insert tab in the Illustrations Group. See Figure 2.

SmartArt button

Figure 2

From the SmartArt dialog box, there are several hierarchy diagrams to choose from. I have found the labeled hierarchy chart to work well with WBS. But, there are several that are appropriate, depending on your purpose and layout. See Figure 3.

Labeled Hierarchy diagram

Figure 3

SmartArt diagrams are very easy to work with in Excel. The SmartArt Tools Design and Format tabs have almost everything you need to work with the SmartArt diagram. Read more about them.


The WBS is really not a luxury these days for projects. They can keep a project on pace and can reveal issues with scheduling, resource allocation, and workflow. Start by creating a WBS for a simpler project first, before trying to use it for a more complex one.

Image credit:

Angela Nino - Versitas Editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *