Baselines are an integral part of project management for capturing project data. A baseline is a snapshot of a project at a given time. They capture all project data – such as dates, durations, and costs. In the planning phase, you create baselines to save the project’s planned data. Once the project begins, you can compare this saved planned data to the actual progress. Project managers can then see how the project is going compared to the original project plan. In addition to being useful, baselines are generally a contractual requirement.

In Microsoft Project, you can create baselines at any time to capture and save project data. You can create multiple baselines throughout a project’s lifecycle. Once saved, you can display baseline data in MS Project using columns and bars. This displaying baseline data allows you to compare your project’s actual work with the original plan.

This article will go over how to create and save baselines in Microsoft Project. Additionally, we will cover how to create interim plans and how they differ from traditional baselines. Lastly, we will take a look at how to add baseline data to the Project workspace for comparisons.  The following examples are from Microsoft Project 2021 Professional, but the process is the same for most desktop versions of Project. This process will not work for Microsoft Planner or Project Online, as these platforms do not support baseline creation.

What are Baselines?

When we build a project in Microsoft Project, we start by entering in planned data. We will estimate how long each activity will take, how much they will cost, and the relationships between them. This plan will often represent a project that has not yet taken place – so we won’t know for sure what our actual values are. By creating this information before the start of the project, we will have a project plan to follow. Ideally, the crew responsible for the actual work will follow the project plan set up within Microsoft Project. This plan is generally referred to as a baseline plan. Before the project begins, we will submit this baseline plan to the customer for approval.

Once the project actually begins, we will update the schedule with actuals to show how work performed. We can compare these actual values with the saved baseline values to track whether the project is performing as expected. With this comparison, we can make adjustments to the project if tasks are running behind schedule or over budget. These comparisons can be especially useful for filing delay claims, as they will often show the reason for the delay.

It’s important to note that you can not open baselines like project files in Microsoft Project. Instead, we can view baselines alongside the current project data via columns and bars. Microsoft Project allows you to create multiple baselines throughout the project’s lifecycle. It’s a scheduling best practice to create a baseline once all project data has been added and then after each status update.

Creating a Baseline in MS Project

You can create a baseline at any time in Microsoft Project. I recommend creating your first baseline once you have added all project data, but before the project begins.

To create a baseline, select Project > Set Baseline. Here, you can choose to set a baseline, or an interim plan – which we’ll talk about in a moment. In the dropdown menu, there are 11 different Baseline fields. This allows you to create 11 different baselines for the project throughout its lifecycle. Select the first unused baseline field.

Next, you can choose to create the baseline for the entire project, or selected tasks. In this example, I’ll be creating a baseline for the whole project. However, if you wanted to create one for selected tasks, select those tasks within the table before continuing. With selected task baselines, you can also choose how baseline data will rollup. It can roll up to either the summary tasks, or to the subtasks beneath them. With your options selected, press OK to set the baseline.

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The project data is now saved to a baseline. You will want to repeat this process to create additional baselines throughout the project. It’s recommended to create a new baseline after performing a status update.

It’s important to note that you can only use baselines for comparisons via columns in the table and bars in the Gantt Chart. You can not open baselines like a project file. If you want to be able to open older versions of the project schedule, you may want to also save a copy of it by selecting File > Save As.

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Creating Interim Plans

Along with baselines, Microsoft Project allows you to create interim plans. Interim plans will save only the timing information for your tasks. They will save the planned start/finish dates for tasks that have not yet started and actual start/finish dates for tasks that have completed. Unlike baselines, interim plans don’t save information about resources, assignments, or costs.

The benefit to using interim plans is that they will take up less space than baselines. Saving several baselines to the project file will make the file very large – interim plans, on the other hand, won’t take up quite as much space. Additionally, if you end up using up all your baseline spaces, you can use interim plans instead.

You can create interim plans in the same dialog box as baselines. Interim plans can be created both from the current schedule and from saved baselines.

To create an interim plan, select Project > Set Baseline. This time, select Set interim plan. From the Copy dropdown, choose what data you want to use for the interim plan. Then, in the Into dropdown, choose where to save this plan to. There are 10 interim plan fields available, all with a prefix of Start/Finish.

Once you have selected the desired options, press OK. The selected Start/Finish field will save and hold the current project’s date information. Just like baselines, you can use this information to run future comparisons.

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Comparing Baseline Data with Actual Data

After creating baselines and statusing the project, you can compare planned data with actual data. This lets you see how well your project is performing compared to the original plan.

Adding Baseline Columns to the Table

In Microsoft Project, you can view baseline data by adjusting the current view. To see baseline data on the table, navigate to the Add New Column dropdown. From this menu, you’ll find a variety of fields relating to the different baselines and interim plans. Because I saved my baseline as Baseline, I’ll add fields such as Baseline Start and Baseline Finish. With these fields, you can compare the project’s actual progress with its baseline progress. There are baseline fields available to compare most data, including dates, durations, costs, and units. If you have saved multiple baselines, you can even display data for several baselines at once.

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To make things easy, the program has a Table of columns already created for baseline comparisons. To turn on this table, select View > Tables > Variance. By default, these columns will show baseline values from the first baseline field, Baseline

With this table, we can compare our current project’s values with our baseline’s values. Additionally, there are columns here for Start Variance and Finish Variance. These columns will show the difference between the current dates and the baseline dates. A positive variance means the schedule is running behind, while a negative variance means it is running ahead.

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Adding Baseline Bars to the Gantt Chart

You can also view baseline data on the Gantt Chart. Baseline bars will display the baseline’s dates and durations, showing how far ahead or behind they are from the current schedule. To add baseline bars, right click in the Gantt Chart and select Show/Hide Bar Styles > Baseline. A list of baselines will be available, and you can choose the desired one. The baseline bars will appear on the screen as gray bars beneath the current bars. If the gray baseline bar is running to the left of the current bar, the task is running behind. If the baseline bar is to the right of the current bar, the task is running ahead.

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Clearing a Baseline

Because you have limited baseline and interim plan spots, you may need to reset or clear one in the future. This can be useful if your project changes after the baseline is created, but before the project begins. You may hear this process referred to as re-baselining, where you create a new original baseline for your project. At any point, you can clear any of your saved baselines or interim plans to replace them with a new version. 

Clearing the baseline will remove it from the project file. To clear the baseline, select Project > Set Baseline > Clear Baseline. In the Clear Baseline window, you can choose to either clear baselines or interim plans. Then, select the field which you want to clear. Press OK and the baseline will be cleared. Now, you can create a new baseline using that field.

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To be clear, it is not recommended to clear the baseline after the project has begun unless re-baselining is required. Otherwise, you should use your first set baseline throughout the project’s lifecycle.

Conclusion

Baselines allow you to save planned project data as it is at a certain time. This is a vital step in project management as it allows you to save your created project plan. As the project progresses, you can compare actual work with the baseline to evaluate progress. In Microsoft Project, you can create up to 11 baselines throughout the project’s lifecycle. If you use up all baseline spots, you can also save interim plans. Interim plans are like baselines, but capture only date information. With a baseline or interim plan saved, you can compare this data with your actual progress. As your project continues, you no longer need to worry about losing past information. With baselines, you can track and compare your project’s progress from beginning to end.

If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please use the comment section on the bottom of this page, and don’t forget to subscribe to our blog to get more scheduling tips & tricks directly in your inbox!

Lauren Hecker is a Microsoft Project, Primavera P6, and Oracle Primavera Cloud Instructor who teaches onsite and virtual scheduling courses. To see her next open enrollment course, please visit our calendar. To schedule an onsite or custom course, please contact us!

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