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A Beginners Guide to Baselining a Project

Throughout my career as a project manager, I have been through many project audits, but the first one is etched in my memory. During that first audit as a PM, I was asked to show the Microsoft Project schedule of my project. When I showed the schedule, the auditor asked me to then show the project baseline.

I had a scant idea about project baselines at that time, but I had not saved one for the project. I told the auditor that we didn’t need one, as we were completing the work as per the defined schedule even if we have to work extra hours. Although my team was serious about the work and always completed it within the defined timeline, my answer to the auditor’s question was pretty naïve. Overall the audit went well, but it was a good learning experience for me. I now can see that the project baseline should always be saved.

In this article, we will cover why a project baseline is required, how to set it up in Microsoft Project (MSP), and how to use it for tracking a project. You can also read a previous article that provides some of the best practices for baselining a project.

 

A MS Project Baseline

A baseline contains data that can be used for comparison or control. MSP gives users the option to save multiple baselines for each task. It allows you to save baseline data for Work, Duration, Start & Finish Dates, Cost, and a few other fields. This way you can compare actual data against the original plan.

 

Why is a Baseline Required?

At the first glance, the baseline feature of MSP looks redundant and counterintuitive. You might wonder why a baseline is required if Project already provides the option for entering actual data like Actual Start & Actual Finish, Actual Duration, and Actual Cost. In one of my previous articles, I explained why MSP provides a facility to save three sets of dates (planned dates, actual dates, and baseline dates).

Each of the three sets of dates has its own purpose. Baseline Start/Finish fields are used to store the original plan dates, Start/Finish fields are used to store the current plan dates, and Actual Start/Finish fields are used to store the actual dates of a task. You can similarly save three sets of data for other fields including Work, Duration, and Cost.

 

How to Save a Baseline?

You can follow the below mentioned steps for creating a new project and baselining it:

1. Open MS Project and go to Gantt Chart view.

2. Create new tasks as shown in the figure below.

Figure I

 

3. Insert following columns in the Gantt chart view:

  1. Baseline Duration
  2. Baseline Start
  3. Baseline Finish

Refer to Figure II below.

Figure II

 

Note: If you want to, you can also add other fields like Cost and Baseline Cost fields in the Gantt chart.

4. Go to Project > Set Baseline. A new dialog will open. Refer to Figures III and IV below.

Figure III

 

Figure IV

 

The dialog box presents two choices. You can either ‘Set Baseline’ or ‘Set Interim Plan.’ You can do so for the ‘Entire Project’ or for ‘Selected Tasks.’

You can go with the defaults for saving the first project baseline. ‘Set Interim Plan’ is important only for saving your temporary work while you are finalizing the plan.

5. Once you ‘Set Baseline,’ you will notice that Baseline Duration and Dates are automatically calculated. Refer to Figure V below.

Figure V

 

6. Baseline fields remain same even If you change the Duration or Dates fields. As an example, let’s change the Duration of Alpha from 10 days to 7 days. Refer to Figure VI below.

Figure VI

 

You will notice that the changed cells are highlighted in a light blue color. When you change the Duration of Alpha its Finish date also changes. In addition, Duration and Date fields of successor tasks and summary tasks also change automatically.

However, you will also notice that the Baseline fields are not impacted. The Baseline remains same even though the project schedule has undergone a significant change. Baselining helps us in preserving the project schedule.

 

How to View a Project Baseline?

You probably have realized by now that MSP does not show the baseline data in the Gantt Chart view by default. However, MSP provides a few other options for viewing and using baselines. You can view baselines by using one of the following options:

1. Go to Project > Project Information. A new dialog will open. Click on the ‘Statistics’ button to show high level baseline information. Refer to Figure VII and VIII below.

Figure VII

 

Figure VIII

 

2. You can use the Tracking Gantt Chart instead of Gantt Chart. The Tracking Gantt will show baseline data for each task. It will show this data along with the current plan and actual data. Refer to Figure IX and X below.

Figure IX

 

Figure X

 

The Tracking Gantt also shows the baseline plan, the current plan, and actual data using bars on the right side. In the above figure, the grey bars depict the baseline plan, while the blue and red bars represent the current plan. The blue and red bars show non-critical tasks and critical tasks respectively. As the project progresses, the current plan may change. The blue and red bars will follow the current plan, but the grey bars, representing the baseline, will stay the same.

 

How to Clear a Baseline in MS Project?

You might want to clear a baseline if you have accidently saved an incorrect baseline. This is quite easy. You can do so by going to Project > Clear Baseline > Clear Baseline. Here, you will need to choose an existing baseline for which to clear the data. You can either clear the baseline for the entire project or just for a few selected tasks. Refer to Figure XI below.

Figure XI

 

How to Save Multiple Baselines?

At times, you may need to save a new baseline as a project’s scope has changed. MSP allows you to save eleven baselines. You can do so by going to Project > Set Baseline and choosing one of the unsaved baselines. You should be careful not to choose an existing baseline as it will overwrite it with new data.

 

How to Revise a Baseline?

There may be occasion where you need to baseline only part of a project as new tasks are added. MSP allows to update a baseline for the selected tasks. You can update a baseline by going through the following steps:

1. Go to Gant Chart and select the task(s) for which you want to update the baseline.

2. Go to Project > Set Baseline and pick the baseline that you want to update.

3. Under the ‘For’ section, click on ‘Selected Tasks.’

4. If the selected task(s) are subtasks, then you can choose ‘Roll up baseline.’ This way summary tasks will also be baselined.

 

Conclusion

Monitoring and controlling your project is an essential aspect of Project Management. It can happen only if a project is properly planned and planned data is kept safe. The baselining feature of Project not only saves planned data, but also helps in comparing actual data against the original plan.

Baselining is one of the most critical features of MSP. You should always baseline the schedule after defining it. This way you will have an original set of dates if/when your project schedule changes.

What type of difficulties have you faced while baselining a project? Do you think eleven baselines are enough for a project? If not, how many do you think are required?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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3 Comments
  1. Praveen- Excellent article! A few thoughts:
    1. At the end of your first section “How to Save a Baseline,” I would of added save a copy of your original baseline file and add “Baseline 1” to the file name as a backup file and it’s easier to see variances from the original baseline plan once it updated. You could repeat this process for doing a second baseline and so on.
    2. Having the ability to save up to 11 baselines is ridiculous because nobody knows whats going on! If this happens, the project needs to be stopped or start over. The maximum baselines, I would allow would be 3 or 4.
    3. I know this has been accidentally overlooked – since you have had more than nine articles published, you have earned the right to have the “author icon” under your picture. Mention this to the editor.

    Reply
  2. Community

    Ronald – Great catch on the author badge, it has been added. Congrats on achieving this award Praveen!

    Reply
  3. Wonderful article, thank you.

    Reply

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