As in battle the first casualty of a project is the plan. Very few, if any, projects complete on time. The original pattern of work is likely to vary.. The use of baseline is a simple concept that is underutilised by many project managers. There is a surprising volume of projects that never set a baseline. If you are actively managing the plan and have spent time establishing as a reasonable model, using a baseline should be almost zero effort.
It not just about the Schedule
A baseline is a snapshot of your project at a point in time. Although the baseline is usually set against schedule it can be practically used for costs, resources, scope, and deliverables. The most common comparison used is against timescale. But if you have recorded effort, costs, deliverables and other key project data with you plan then why not use that in your baselines. Microsoft Project allows cost, effort and duration to be easily recorded. But with the use of custom fields you can add deliverables to the mix.
When to set a baseline
It can be a useful record of your project at any point in time. Be careful when your set you baseline. Do not set it too early because you might not have a compete plan in place. The ideal first baseline is once you have an overview of the project that is accepted by your sponsor, stakeholder and the project time. This is the initial baseline. Setting a baseline before you have all the effort and costs in place will mean you are judging against only part of the story.
You can assess the performance of your project using baselines. Advance tools like Earned Value Analysis depend on baseline data. But you can use baseline to give you simple indicators of performance without using EVA . Setting a tracking period or stage baseline can give you a basis to judge the project during that period. Most planning tools will allow you to store a number of different baselines.
Storing the baseline for each stage is something worth considering, at the end of a stage it can be useful for confirming and tuning the plan for the next stage.
Change control tool
Where you are driving the plan and actively tracking progress, using a separate baseline to assess change impact can be very helpful. Take a copy of the project plan and then assigning a “change request” baseline. This baseline is the image of your project without the change. Then you plan in your change in your plan, including effort and costs.
Your new temporary plan minus the baseline gives you the costs timescale and effort for the change. This can be used to present the case for, or against, the change in your project. This allows your project steering group or key stakeholders to see the total impact of the change request and the context in relation to the project as a whole. This approach can be applied even if you have not previously taken a baseline earlier in your project.
When to change a baseline
When to set a baseline is a key point in your project. There are also times to change your baseline. If your project baseline reflected the original scope and objectives then it remains useful until that changes. So, at a point of significant change being approved a refreshed baseline is valid. The first baseline might still be useful; so where your planning tool allows store a current project baseline and the original for ease of comparison.
Any approved changes to scope should be used to form an amended baseline that represents the final objectives. But remember changing the baseline too often removes it value. Never changing it might not represent the true picture of your project. It’s a balance that the project manager needs to achieve.
Baselines and Lessons Learnt
When your project finishes, baseline is a key tool in assessing performance against expectations. It can be extremely useful in tuning the estimates for future projects. The data can be used to re-enforce realistic expectations for future projects. Depending on the level of recording and tracking in your project it can also highlight areas for training and possible risk hotspots for other projects.
So, if you do not use baselines currently but you have put the work into building a solid plan, it is a useful tool to consider.