Project Management Institute

Implementation of an automotive product launch system

Carel Allen, Program Manager, Project Office, Johnson Controls, Inc.


The Automotive Systems Group (ASG) of Johnson Controls, Inc. (JCI) is a global supplier of automotive interior systems and batteries. During the 1990s, JCI automotive business expanded by tenfold—much of this growth resulting from acquisitions. ASG had implemented their internally developed Product Introduction Process (PIP), but with the acquisitions, two more product launch systems were brought into ASG's operations: the Product Development Process (PDP) and the Project Management Handbook (PMH).

ASG was also increasingly working on development projects that required multiple teams in multiple locations developing products for a single customer. It was clear that ASG needed to have one common global product development process that would allow all ASG employees and teams to communicate better and improve the efficiency of the development process.

Development of a New Product Launch System

Initiating the Project

The executive sponsors established a core team with members from various European and North American locations who had an understanding of the existing development processes. The team was challenged to create a product launch system that would achieve the following goals:

• Combine best practices from existing product development systems (PIP, PDP, and PMH).

• Meet industry standards from The Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG), Project Management Institute (PMI), and International Organization for Standardization (ISO)

• Share best practices among all ASG global locations

• Help Simultaneous Development Teams (SDTs) achieve corporate launch goals for timing, cost, quality, and efficiency

• Accommodate all ASG automotive products

• Provide clear and useful documentation

• Comply with ASG's Business Operating System (BOS) Policy

• Accommodate customers’ product development processes.

The new product launch system would need to be flexible enough that the SDTs could follow ASG's processes and still meet the requirements of its global customer base. In addition, the product development teams around the world had a great variety of regional and corporate cultures to reconcile. ASG management recognized that the new system would be a key tool to help employees overcome these barriers. A new product launch system had the potential to provide a common “language” (processes and terminology) to help the company's product development teams and management communicate and globally integrate better and faster.

The Result: PLUS

For one year, 120 people, from all corners of the globe, volunteered to help develop ASG's new Product Launch System (PLUS). The result was a high-level process divided into six phases. Phase 0, the Ideation Phase, is actually two subprojects that are used to develop new corporate products and new technologies. During Phase 1, the Proposal Phase, all customer-driven projects are initiated and planned, and new business is awarded. Phases 2 through 5 are comprised of the simultaneous product and process design activities, and the manufacturing systems that prepare for the Start of Production (SOP).

To a large extent, PLUS repackaged the three existing systems (PIP, PDP, and PMH) into a new process, with optimized procedures, deliverables, and roles and responsibilities. The new system was also painstakingly mapped to the Quality System Requirements QS9000 (AIAG, March 1998), Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) and Control Plan (AIAG, June 1994), and the Automotive Project Management Guide (AIAG, 1997) publications from the AIAG. The concepts presented in these publications became the framework for the PLUS Phases.

Mandatory procedures were drafted around key subprocesses to ensure that all product development teams would meet industry standards and the corporate BOS Policy by following PLUS. Wherever possible, standardized work instructions and forms were also developed. A 4-level pyramid was developed to organize this documentation, as show in Exhibit 1.

Level 1 is the BOS Policy that describes the basic guiding principles for how ASG conducts its business. Level 2 is the mandatory procedures that tell all SDTs at all global locations what they must do. These are typically written around critical subprocesses, such as process design or design verification. The Level 3 documents are the work instructions, guidelines, forms, checklist, standards, specifications, and training materials that instruct the SDTs how to comply with the procedures. Level 4 documents are the completed records created by the project teams.

Exhibit 1. PLUS Documentation

PLUS Documentation

In addition to the documents with global scope, business units or regional operations could generate additional Level 3 documents as needed. However, when possible, the Level 3 work instructions, forms, and checklist were standardized globally. This was done to help reduce the duplication of similar documents in multiple locations or business operations.

All PLUS documentation was also crosschecked to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (Project Management Institute, 1996) to ensure that PLUS adequately addressed all elements of project management. The mapping of PLUS to the PMBOK® Knowledge Areas and Process Groups, and APQP is shown in Exhibit 2.

Global Roll-0ut

Introduction Training

Johnson Controls believes that management-level employees should be knowledgeable enough to lead, coach, and teach their respective organizations. The company expresses this through the phrase “Leaders Learning, Leaders Teaching, Leaders Coaching.” The rollout of PLUS followed this philosophy. All management-level employees attended a daylong event where they were introduced to PLUS and developed implementation plans to introduce PLUS to their respective organizations. In this way, the awareness of PLUS trickled down through the organization.

Recognizing that people could not be expected to become fully PLUS literate by attending an informational meeting, additional training methods were developed. ASG's prior launch system, PIP, utilized computer-based training distributed on compact discs. However, distribution of the compact discs proved to have some serious logistical challenges. Updating the training materials required the recall of all distributed compact discs and then reissuing new discs.

With the launch of PLUS, a self-paced computer-based Overview Course was again used. To avoid the prior updating and distribution problems, the intranet was the logical vehicle to deliver the training materials. Every employee has access to the course at any time and could take the training at his or her convenience. Distributing updated training materials was a simple act of updating the intranet web server data. This proved to be a very cost-effective way to deliver basic training about the new product launch system. With a relatively low initial investment, ASG was able to provide basic PLUS training to over 3,500 employees over the course of one and one-half years.

Support and Job Aids

A key element of the rollout strategy included the mass distribution of informational materials. During the rollout, all employees were given expandable brochures with an overview of PLUS. These were designed to be used as an easy reference on a day-to-day basis. The pocket-sized brochures contain a diagrammed overview of the process. This is also the foundation for the Work Breakdown Structure for each project. In addition to providing introductory information on PLUS, the brochures have continued to provide a convenient and effective job aid for employees. Many people have these posted in their workspace.

The process overview was also produced on wall-sized banners that were placed in conference rooms and public areas. The goal of the banners was to build PLUS awareness and provide process reference material during working SDT meetings.

For more detailed information, a website was created providing online access to all the PLUS documentation. Additional resources, such as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), definitions and terms, detailed PLUS Timeline instructions, information on training courses, overview presentation slide shows, and support contact names and telephone numbers were made available on the website. All these efforts have proved to be invaluable elements in institutionalizing the PLUS process and terminology.

Transition to the New Launch System

One of the challenges associated with the rollout was how to convert SDTs midstream in their projects from the old systems (PIP, PDP, and PMH) to using PLUS. It was decided that all SDTs with less that one year left of their projects could remain using the old systems. They had little to gain by using the new system and it would only distract the teams from focusing on smooth production launches.

Teams with more that one year of development remaining were required to convert to PLUS. This effort was one of the most difficult challenges associated with implementing PLUS. The teams were met head-on with the effort to repackage the work they were doing into the PLUS terminology and format.

Early on during this transition period, it was evident that the online PLUS Overview Course was not sufficient to prepare the teams for using PLUS. A multi-course training curriculum was needed to ensure that PLUS was successfully utilized by these teams and integrated into the ASG culture.

Exhibit 2. PLUS Product Launch System

PLUS Product Launch System

Training and Support for Implementation

The Virtual Global Project Office

When planning the release of PLUS, the development team realized that expert help would be needed in addition to the informational materials and intranet-based training. The plan revolved around creating a network of people who had a working knowledge of PLUS. Some people were volunteers from the PLUS development team. Other people had official job responsibilities related to project management or were part of local project offices. In essence, a virtual global project office was established even though it was not an officially recognized part of ASG's organizational structure. This network of people could answer more detailed questions about PLUS, offer assistance in converting projects to PLUS, and participate in the many departmental PLUS rollout sessions.

PLUS Overview Course

The core part of the training strategy was the intranet-based PLUS Overview Course. This training offers modules on comparing the old processes to PLUS, general project management concepts, details of each Phase of the process, roles and responsibilities, and reviews and reports. The Phase-specific modules allowed the students to drill down to the basic elements of each process step, including viewing all supporting documents.

The team rolling out PLUS felt that due to the self-paced concept and the fact that the training was available on the company's intranet, this training would be able to fulfill the majority of the training needs. People desiring a basic understanding of the new system could take the basic elements of the training. Other people, who wanted very detailed training, could go as far as reading all the associated procedures. Training needs beyond this level were intended to be handled on an as-needed basis by the global support network.

PLUS for Leaders

Very early in the rollout process, the middle-management leadership group indicated that they needed a better understanding of the PLUS process in order to answer questions arising from their development teams. In general, the intranet-based training was not very effective for this audience. This group needed training related to the PLUS implementation issues rather than training on PLUS content. In response, a one-day PLUS For Leaders course was developed. This training provided a philosophical overview of why ASG developed PLUS, how to apply it, and a procedure for suggesting improvements. It proved to be quite successful and as a result, is now available to all employees.

PLUS in Action

As SDTs were converting to PLUS, it became apparent that teams would benefit from hands-on learning. In addition, the heavily-matrixed organization structure of ASG left many SDT members unsure of everyone's roles and responsibilities. As a result, additional team-based training was developed.

The solution was a workshop for SDTs that combined classroom presentations with a simulated development project that provides hands-on application of PLUS to a project. This simulation, titled PLUS in Action, involves building an automotive seat out of LEGO® bricks, and overlaying the requirements of PLUS with the interaction of customer, supplier, and (internal) general management representatives.

SDTs begin the simulation with the project in a state of chaos. Through the application of PLUS, the teams gradually get their team and deliverables under control, and gain an appreciation for how PLUS can help them achieve their deliverables. Teams that have gone through this simulation felt that it provides an excellent venue for gaining more detailed knowledge of PLUS and how the responsibilities of each of the team members contributes to the success of the project. All new SDTs are required to go through a PLUS in Action workshop as part of the Project Kick-Off activities. This puts the application of PLUS fresh in the minds of the team members as they start their new project.

PLUS Training for Program Managers

Program managers in ASG are responsible for ensuring that their SDTs complete all PLUS requirements and ensuring that all ASG and customer requirements are satisfied. This level of responsibility necessitated the need for additional training for the program management community.

Because of these responsibilities, the detailed job requirements and expectations of program managers were translated into a curriculum titled Excelerate (Excellence Accelerated) for Program Managers. This is a self-paced program that familiarizes the program manager with all of his or her key/major responsibilities along with secondary tasks that if left unchecked, could affect program deliverables. With the assistance of a coach/mentor, (usually a senior staff member), the program manager is guided through the activities and responsibilities that must be understand to be successful.

PLUS Timeline

One of the key tools for applying PLUS on a project is a standardized Microsoft Project timeline template. The PLUS Timeline guides the program manager and the SDT through the entire PLUS process. Based upon the customer, product, project scope, and timing requirements, the SDTs tailor the template for their program. The standard PLUS Timeline also provides the program manager with task descriptions, standard responsibility assignments, and intranet hyperlinks to supporting documentation (e.g., procedures and forms).

To ensure that the program managers were effectively utilizing the PLUS Timeline, ASG customized courses in Microsoft Project and the PLUS Timeline. These two combined courses were designed to give the program managers the basic skills in using Microsoft Project and the knowledge of how to apply and customize the PLUS Timeline for their projects.

Continuous Improvements


As part of ASG's QS9000 certification, audits are regularly held to evaluate PLUS compliance. First-party audits are self-conducted by departments and business units. Second-party audits are conducted by the ASG Quality staffs. The most important audits are conducted by an outside vendor, or third-party, to ensure that the internal policies and processes are being followed. Each level of these audits continues to offer new insight into how PLUS is being applied and institutionalized. The audits provide feedback in two important areas: where additional training is needed and where we need improvements in PLUS.

Applying Lessons Learned

As part of every Phase Exit Review in PLUS, SDTs are required to compile their lessons learned. This includes Things Gone Right (TGR), Things Gone Wrong (TGW), and Recommendations for subsequent project teams. Many of these lessons learned are formalized and turned into recommendations for further improvements to PLUS. As SDTs apply PLUS on projects, ASG is continually learning what elements of PLUS need to be improved.

In addition, every ASG employee is encouraged to submit suggestions for improvements to PLUS. All proposals for improving PLUS are reviewed by the virtual global project office. The process and supporting documents are scrutinized for opportunities to improve areas that are weak, and reduce areas that are too complex. These changes are scheduled and incorporated every six months.

Focus groups were held to better assess how useful PLUS is to the SDTs and solicit change proposals. While improvements continue to be suggested, these focus groups have confirmed that PLUS has proved to be a valuable tool for improving the way ASG does business.


The authors would like to express their appreciation to the entire PLUS Development Team, and in particular, Richard Crayne, the team's leader. As a result of their efforts, the team received JCI's highest honor, the Johnson Controls Chairman's Award. This award is presented to recognize and reward outstanding employee achievements in customer satisfaction.

LEGO® is a registered trademark of the LEGO Company.


Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG). 1997. Automotive Project Management Guide. Southfield, MI.

Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG). 1994, June. Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) and Control Plan. Southfield, MI.

Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG). 1998, March. Quality System Requirements QS-9000. Southfield, MI.

Project Management Institute. 1996. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA



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