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Microsoft Project Baselines: Best Practices for Creating, Changing, and Using

written by: Linda Richter • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 6/30/2015

For managers who are just getting started with Microsoft Project, baselines seem high tech and difficult. You're not alone wondering how to create baselines: What are they for? How do you use them? How many should you set? This article will answer all your questions about baselines.

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    Just What Is a Baseline?

    Creating or setting a baseline in Microsoft Project is like taking your project's temperature periodically to see how it’s doing. At the start of a project, when the, thermometer, iprole manager has all the tasks in place, the people are assigned and the money is budgeted, he creates a baseline of data for his project so that he can measure its progress. It’s important to set the baseline at the outset, because once risks become a reality and life's little detours happen to your project, you won’t be able to measure the changes going back to its very beginning.

    You, as the project manager, will find baselines a useful way to document the shift in budgeting—in terms of money carved out of the budget as well as dedicated hours of labor.

    • In Microsoft Project, baselines measure five parameters—start dates, finish dates, durations, costs, and work or labor estimates.
    • You might need to submit a report on the extra financial commitment in terms of materials or labor to complete the project, and setting baselines at various points in the process lets you pinpoint where overruns occurred.
    • Setting a baseline also allows you to review your project at a later date as a valuable resource for planning the next similar project.

    Microsoft Project actually lets you “take your project’s temperature" 11 times throughout its duration. Most project managers really don’t need that many readings on their project, but the software allows you that amount if you need them.

    In fact, you can set more than 11 baselines, because Project will let you clear a baseline. Also, you can set several interim plans, but they track only scheduling changes. It’s worth repeating this; too many baselines or interims is not recommended until you become pretty confident working with Project. Too many statistics can cloud the total picture.

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    Setting Your First Baseline

    The time to set your first baseline is when you have all data in place. For this topic the same project example from previous MS Project 2010 articles is utilized—preparation for a hospital accreditation visit. The focus is on screenshots of the primary task and subtasks of the maintenance department as they update the hospital’s physical plant for inspection. In the screenshot below, all tasks have just been set in place:

    Baseline - before baseline 

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    Before adding the first baseline, you need to insert Baseline Start and Baseline Finish columns. You can do this the same way that you added your other columns—using the Add New Column and choosing those tags from the list. Be careful which ones you choose. There are Baseline tags for all 11 possible baselines, and once you add a column, you can hide it but you can’t delete it.

    Baseline shot 2 Adding Baseline Start and Finish columns 

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    This project is finally ready for a baseline, but before it is set please observe in the image above that the each of the red lines in the Gantt chart section stands alone; also note that the columns for baseline values are blank. Then the baseline is set at the Project tab: Project tab >Set Baseline>Set Baseline.

    Baseline - dialogue box 

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    Now the changes in the Project are apparent. The tasks’ start and finish dates appear in the Baseline Start and Baseline Finish columns. And in the Gantt chart section, the gray bar beneath each of the red bars indicates projected task durations.

    Baseline has been se t 

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    Now That You've Got a Baseline...

    As you work on your project, the Baseline columns will track metrics for you. To provide a better view of the affected columns, a few of the others have been hidden in this view.

    Baseline changes 

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    Now the first two subtasks are complete—Shopping for Supplies at Lowe’s and Updating Equipment. The column for % Complete shows updated values. In the Gantt chart, the gray bar beneath the first subtask fits exactly beneath the original red bar for this chore. The second chore, however, took a day longer than planned, and the gray baseline extends beyond the original chore line to demonstrate that. The dates also differ in the Finish column and in the Baseline Finish column.

    Some people like to print their project before they make a baseline and then again after they create one. You can update your baseline, clear a baseline, or create new baselines as your project proceeds. You can update specific tasks rather than the whole project, and the baseline window will let you indicate whether you want your subtask updates to roll up into the primary task data.

    Comparing the original with its baseline is simple. Select the View tab, then in the Data group look for Tables and then in the drop-down choose Variance. In this view the task for updating equipment was completed in one day more than expected.

    Baseline variance 

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    Clearing a baseline is the reverse of setting one. Go to Project>Set Baseline>Clear Baseline. The dialogue box opens; choose whether you’re clearing a baseline for the entire project or just specified tasks, and then select the baseline from the drop-down box. It’s a good protection for people who start off baseline-happy and then realize they just have too much information.

    In Microsoft Project, baselines are never really changed; if you try to update a baseline you just delete the information it contained. Unless you want to clear your baseline and reset it, simply choose another of your 11 baselines for an update.

    When the manager forgets to set a baseline at the project outset, there’s no backtracking possible, so enter this as a project task if you’re afraid you’ll forget. Also, some managers add tasks or resources to projects but then they fail to save a new baseline, and the variance is calculated based on the information minus the update. Some problems occur if subtasks are updated but not rolled up into the summary tasks or if the summary tasks are not updated. For example, the final screenshots show that the ending date of the primary task (3/31) is not updated to match the ending date of the final subtask (4/4) because the final subtask date was not changed after the first baseline.

    Once you've figured out where your project has gone off track, it will be much easier to fix it.

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    References and Resources

    Besides my own experience with Microsoft Project 2010, for this article I also referred to:

    • Microsoft Office Help tools, at
    • Muir, Nancy. Microsoft Project 2010 for Dummies. Hoboken:Wiley Publishing, 2010, pp. 2436-251.

    Image credits: (thermometer)

    screenshots by L. Richter