Product Breakdown Structure

A product breakdown structure (PBS) is a hierarchical visual representation of project outcomes or deliverables.

Understanding the product breakdown structure

A product breakdown structure is a diagrammatic hierarchical representation of project outcomes and provides a clear and concise illustration of what the project must deliver. The PBS is also beneficial for teams since it reduces a complex project or product into more manageable components.

At the top of the product breakdown structure is the final product, with elements of the product represented in various subcategories below. The PBS is similar to another project management tool called the work breakdown structure (WBS), which organizes project work into smaller sections and deliverables.

In the context of project management, the PBS precedes the WBS with a focus on determining the desired outputs required to achieve project goals. The WBS is then crafted to identify the activities and tasks that will support those outputs. 

Many favor this approach to project management because it removes ambiguity and avoids assumptions that can result in inefficiencies. The common mantra is that the “PBS defines where you want to go while the WBS tells you how to get there.”

Example of a product breakdown structure

Here is a brief look at a product breakdown structure for a third-party software installation. Under this product are the following categories and subcategories:

  • Project initiation document.
  • Software installed – third-party software, servers, database software.
  • Software tested – test plans, test scripts, test system.
  • Training delivered – training plan, training venue, training material.
  • Software delivery to users – software download, post-install test script.

Notice in the above that products may be described as nouns or as outcomes in the past tense. Most product breakdown structures will also be annotated with a list of products and associated product descriptions. These set the standards for product quality and responsibility early on in the project life cycle.

Once the PBS has been completed, decision-makers can create a product flow diagram to define the delivery plan logic.

How to create a product breakdown structure

Creating a product breakdown structure involves a team of individuals sharing their unique perspectives on a particular project. 

Many businesses choose to conduct brainstorming sessions between departments where employees can collaborate to define the various categories and sub-categories. This can be done on a whiteboard or with notecards and post-it notes.

Whatever method is chosen, the teams must discuss each project and reorganize the components where necessary. For complex projects, it may be worthwhile to use mind mapping and project management software such as MindView.

Key takeaways:

  • A product breakdown structure (PBS) is a hierarchical visual representation of project outcomes or deliverables. It provides a clear and concise illustration of project deliverables while also reducing complexity.
  • In a PBS, products are described as either nouns or outcomes in the past tense. Once the illustration has been completed, decision-makers can create a product flow diagram to define the delivery plan logic.
  • To create a product breakdown structure, teams from multiple departments must collaborate and share their unique perspectives. The PBS itself be completed on a whiteboard or with note cards, but more complex projects may require dedicated project management software.
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