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Baselines are essential to improvements. They are the starting point for a process to be changed, or are reference points for ongoing processes. Baselines can be used in two main ways.

First, they can be used to establish current conditions prior to a project. This is essential to knowing if the changes actually had the positive impact they were expected to.

The other common use of baselines is as a comparison point for an ongoing metric. In this application, a baseline is sometimes referred to as a jumping-off point. This type of metric is typically reset every year as a new starting point to evaluate progress on annual goals. (Note: You may also see a baseline compare a current period to an earlier period. For example, financial analysts routinely use the previous quarter and the year-ago quarter as baselines to evaluate earnings in the current period.)

Why are baselines important? A continuous improvement culture, by definition, must improve processes. So, baselines provide the marker to show that you are actually progressing. They are simply a snapshot of a point in time, and are compared to where you are today.

It gives you an ability to evaluate whether the changes you are making to a process is actually resulting in forward progress. Baselines are the difference between throwing your thumb in the air and squinting at it to judge if you made progress, and having cold, hard facts to support your decisions.

In some cases, you won’t have a baseline of your own. This is most often true when your organization is attempting something new. In those cases, it is OK to use an industry standard as a baseline and try to evaluate yourself against that.

Be careful not to confuse baselines and benchmarks. The two are similar in that they are both comparison points. Baselines, however, tend to be a look at how far you’ve come, and benchmarks are generally used to focus a team on where it should go.


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