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The future of Kaizen - S2:E5 Strategy Hero reflections

Has data taken us too far from the purpose of Kaizen? Here's what I learned from season two, episode five of Strategy Hero with Charlie Sharman.

The Strategy Hero podcast has given me the chance to talk to countless people from the world of strategy execution. Season one was an unknown, but as we entered our second, we had a target list that we knew we had to invite and, with stars aligning, welcome to the show.

Charlie Sharman, an Ex-VP of Danaher and senior leader at Kaizen Institute, was at the top of that list.

From hearing about how the analogue Kaizen world turned digital, to the perils of relying too much on data and technology, here's what I learned from my time with Charlie Sharman.

It’s important to note that my opinions do not reflect those of i-nexus, Charlie Sharman, and Kaizen Institute.



Why Charlie?

Before Charlie's untimely passing in January 2024, I had the privilege of collaborating with him on various occasions. Our paths crossed through his involvement with i-nexus and the memorable opportunity we had to record our Hoshin 101 webinar series together.

His background inspires me. From humble beginnings in the UK's West Midlands region, Charlie traveled the world and was the living embodiment of Kaizen.

His belief was clear - you must walk the path countless times before seeing what's in front of you. 

That is something that stuck out with our time together on this episode.

But above all, when choosing Charlie as a guest, I appreciated that he was who he said he was.

Whether it was pre-show production notes, talking about his life out in Portugal, or hitting the record button for this episode, he was the same person.

We invite these people to the show because they're exactly who we know you'll resonate with.


"Danaher multiplied my effectiveness five times. [It taught me] if you lead the business using the right structures, processes, and tools, you'll get superior performance. But it's not an option."


With that mindset, it's clear to me why Charlie's episode on the future of Kaizen was a perfect accompaniment to our "Is Lean Enough?" episode with Pascal Dennis.


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Strat to Action

No one puts it better than Charlie - Strat to Action is:


"Five minutes of 365 days of action. Not 365 days of planning and five minutes of...we can't do it."


That's the point of connecting improvement, transformation, and operations to strategy. 

As Charlie explained, his focus isn't on spending time studying data and taking a long time to evaluate and act on the information. To him, it's important to evolve and leverage information, but remain authentic to the principles of Kaizen:

  • Engagement
  • Involvement
  • Leadership
  • Direction


And that's the key to having a successful culture and, naturally, business.


"Kaizen isn't magic, it isn't a bag of beans, you need to work hard."



Does Kaizen still work?

Ying and yang is how Charlie looks at this.

To his mind, it's not working because experience isn't being gained.

He shared a story from earlier in his career at a car plant. 

He explained that he spent considerable time calculating the production line. However, his Japanese Sensei walked down it during a Gemba, and within 10 minutes created a value stream map.

As he walked through this story, it became clear that you can only make Kaizen work in Gemba.

The lesson? You cannot understand or identify process issues from afar by looking at data. 


"You need to go to where the work is done...you can't find the golden egg in data [because] you've lost the connection to the real work."


Even Larry Culp, GE CEO and ex-Danaher, dedicates regular time to Kaizen. 

Charlie's concern is that a layer has grown between leadership and the front line.

Concepts like value-stream maps are seen as an output, not the beginning of understanding where to go and what to do to make change. 


"It's a leadership problem. Leadership means going to Gemba and leading the people through it - you don't have to attend every event that's going on, but you should definitely show the people that you're interested. You're driving this program, they want to know, they want to see you, they want to talk to you."



My takeaway: leadership is where Kaizen succeeds and fails

Charlie's passion was evident throughout the episode. Calling out what he sees as an issue with Kaizen - it has evolved with tech, AI, and a shifting C-suite demographic, but the basic foundations must still be met. 

Leaders need to embrace the nitty gritty. Delegating leadership is not an option. Continuous improvement is an experience-based discipline. You can only be successful with continuous improvement if you are willing to roll up your sleeves. And that connects directly to Hoshin Kanri.


"You don't need the due diligence to 26 decimal points because you don't know how to do it anyway. All you're doing is guessing. The purpose of a Hoshin is to set out a really aggressive plan of things you don't know how to do, so how can you take seven months to plan something you don't know how to do? You have to go to Gemba. But no one gets that."


To that end, Charlie offered some solid advice:

  • Productivity is important, but efficiency shouldn't be at the cost of quality and following the intent of Kaizen
  • Minimize the things that aren't value-adding and focus on those that are
  • Always listen to the voice of the customer
  • Set a vision that stretches the business
  • Follow up with due diligence
  • Kick the amber out of your bowling chart - it's either on target or it's missed, and ask why


"Celebrate the victories in fifteen seconds, but then turn and ask "where are the countermeasures?""


Last, but not least, as with every episode, Charlie stressed the importance of people. You must invest time with people on the shop floor and focus on changing the things that matter.

Thanks for being our fifth hero of the season, and for the advice you've shared with me, your colleagues, and countless others, Charlie.


Listen to the episode

Charlie's episode was the fifth of season two of Strategy Hero.

You can click here to listen to Charlie's episode, search "Strategy Hero" wherever you find your favorite podcasts, or click the play button below.

About Strategy Hero

Published on the last Thursday of every month, the Strategy Hero podcast delves into the world of business strategy and transformation.

Each cast shines a spotlight on a Strategy Hero – inspirers, boundary pushers, and leaders of change from all walks of life – armed with practical advice on achieving your goals.

Episodes explore topics around operational excellence, Lean management, process improvement, change management, and much, much more. Available where all great podcasts live, listen on-demand today, and discover the Strategy Hero inside you.


About the host

James Milsom is Head of Marketing at i-nexus, but James is a storyteller. He’s the UK’s biggest Georgia Bulldogs fan (Go Dawgs!) and lives and breathes marketing.

The Strategy Hero podcast is his opportunity to bring some of his conversations with mentors, inspirers, and people anew to you every month.

He’s behind the content read and watched by people like you and lives to educate and help others.

If you’d like to learn more about him, connect with him on LinkedIn and subscribe to the Strategy Hero podcast today!