A baseline as the name suggests is a line that is being used as a base for future measurement. It is a reference. In Project Management, the term baseline refers to an accepted and approved project plan. Usually known as project baseline, it is a must for a project manager that wish to monitor and evaluate the success of the project. Without it there is no possibility to compare the current status of the project with the initial estimated one.
Once established what the baseline is, the next important step is to store it for future use. If it is not stored, then it cannot be used to compare against it and it is meaningless. For a project there can be saved multiple baselines depending on the project size and how often the project plan changes.
To obtain the best efficiency a project manager should best use a project management software to create the detailed project plan. After it gets approved the manager should save it as a baseline project plan. During the project execution, comparisons can be done between the initial baseline estimates and the current status to compute variances. This comparison can be done either manually or automatically by software tools. Of course the second approach is preferred.
Types of project baselines
Since a project baseline includes many data from a project it is difficult to manage it as a whole and usually it is broken into several parts. This makes the complexity of baseline management easier to deal with. Project baselines generally include:
- Scope baseline – the technical, physical and functional requirements for deliverable products
- Schedule baseline – the project schedule and all of the elements supporting the schedule
- Cost/Budget baseline – an approved budget usually in a time distribution format used to estimate, monitor, and control overall cost performance on the project
- Quality/Risk baseline – the set of known possible changes (uncertainties) that could impact the performance of the project
Tracking projects using baselines
The key to effective progress tracking is the baseline plan. To track a project, you must have something to compare against. The baseline plan contains the original or planned estimates against which you can track the project’s actual progress. Managing a project often requires to compare it to earlier versions of it. As the project progresses, the manager may also want to save an interim plan periodically.
When to create a baseline?
Usually a baseline is created immediately after the project plan is finished and approved. Enter tasks, establish dependencies, and assign resources and costs. Once the schedule gets adjusted as best as possible, and before starting tracking, save the baseline plan. In certain cases when the project planning stage is long, or the project has begun but approved changes occur, the project manager can save multiple baselines to record the changing baseline values over time. This is useful for future experience to avoid what was bad planned.
Do project baselines change?
The key to working with baselines is to not adjust the baseline every time there is a slight change to the schedule. Ideally, once the project baseline is stored it should not be changed. However, it is sometimes inevitable to adjust it due to a new requirement that implies a major change to scope or cost. Also in rare cases the project was not well scheduled since the initial phase. In these cases the best solution is to keep the initial baseline and to save the adjusted schedule as a new baseline. This way there will be several interim baselines that can be used to remember the potentially bad project management or the team members that did not deliver as promised.
Although the initial baseline is the output of the planning phase the rest of intermediary baselines are referred and updated during execution and control phase.
Are baselines helpful?
A baseline is an essential tool for tracking the project progress. Using the original estimates as reference points, the project managers can compare against them the actual state of the project. This has two important consequences:
- Managers can see how good the estimates were and if the trend of project development is a good one. Baseline information that is significantly different from current data indicates that the original plan was inaccurate and this should trigger a warning for the future.
- It provides relevant information regarding the quality, experience and knowledge of the project manager. A well done initial project plan will indicate a well prepared manager. By using baselines you can make improvements to future projects by learning from present mistakes.
With the help of project management software it is easier to manage project baselines and the managers can calculate variances between baseline estimates and project actual data. Having a baseline allows you to monitor the project performance and to improve the quality of future estimates.