The Japanese word “kaizen” literally translates into “change for better.” In English, the word Kaizen is typically used to describe a process of continuous improvement, a key element of any Lean practice.

A Kaizen board is a visual tool that helps teams and organizations manage their continuous improvement efforts. Kaizen boards and Kanban boards can be easily confused, and in fact, some teams choose to represent their Kaizen work on their Kanban boards.

Learn how Lean, Kaizen, and Kanban all work together to help your team get more done.

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What is Kaizen?

Above all else, Kaizen is a mentality, a way of thinking about work that helps teams practicing it to:

  • Eliminate waste
  • Improve process flow
  • Boost productivity
  • Increase value created

There are two facets of Kaizen: flow Kaizen and process Kaizen, each of which tackle a different part of the organizational system. The use of Kaizen for continuous improvement requires both flow and process Kaizen efforts.

Flow Kaizen

Flow Kaizen refers to the flow of information and materials through an entire value stream. Flow Kaizen efforts aim to improve efficiency, productivity, communication, and transparency at the macro / organizational-level.

This often requires an overhaul of existing systems, activities, tools, and methods. For many companies, focusing on flow Kaizen, through an exercise called value stream mapping, is the first step towards a Lean transformation.

Flow Kaizen examples could include:

  • Creating cross-functional teams that include employees from sales, marketing, and customer success, to work together to move into a specific vertical
  • Holding monthly organization-wide meetings to review performance numbers against yearly goals
  • Implementing a self-service Business Intelligence analytics tool that provides every employee access to organizational data
  • Improving documentation across the company to reduce redundant effort

Process Kaizen

Process Kaizen happens at the individual / team level, taking small, targeted steps to improve efficiency, productivity, communication, and transparency. Because it is simply the process of making incremental improvements, process Kaizen is accessible to anyone looking to improve their performance, regardless of whether their organization is undergoing a Lean initiative.

Process Kaizen examples could include:

Using a Kaizen Board

If the following scenario sounds familiar to you, a Kaizen board might help: You have a super-productive team meeting, one where everyone contributed awesome ideas for working smarter and getting more done. A week or two goes by… and none of the ideas have been implemented. You have another meeting to discuss the ideas, and everyone gets energized once more – but once again, nothing actually gets done.

This is where a Kaizen board becomes useful. It’s difficult to make time and devote energy to work that isn’t treated like work, but rather, a side project. Using a Kaizen board at the team or organizational levels can help turn good ideas into actionable cards, which the group collectively manages. As long as the team (or organization) commits to reviewing the board as a group (and prioritizing the work alongside other work), a Kaizen board can make your improvement ideas a reality.

Relationship Between Kaizen and Kanban

Kaizen boards and Kanban boards differ in their purpose, but often look quite similar. Kaizen boards specifically manage Kaizen efforts, whereas Kanban boards generally represent workflow.

However – many teams choose to manage their Kaizen efforts as a workflow – some version of To Do, Doing, and Done – making a Kanban board a natural fit for their Kaizen practice. Most digital Kanban tools can be used to create Kaizen boards, so if you’re already using a Kanban tool, try creating a Kaizen board.

Do We Need Different Boards?

Critics of Kaizen boards argue that having separate boards, one for improvement efforts and one for workflow, perpetuates the mental divide between improvement work and “real” work, making it easy to once again neglect improvement efforts in favor of work that directly adds value to the customer. If your team or organization already struggles to prioritize improvement work, it’s unlikely that having a board to visualize these efforts will magically help you make it happen.

Success with Kaizen boards (and Kanban boards, for that matter) depends on the commitment your team or organization makes to Kaizen – to continuous improvement.

If your team or organization uses Kanban to manage work, and struggles to prioritize improvement efforts, it might make sense to combine these two boards into one – to visualize, prioritize, and manage Kaizen work alongside your other work on a Kanban board.

Remember: Kaizen is a Mentality

Ultimately, Kaizen is more a mentality than a method; it’s a way of approaching work that encourages continuous experimentation, analysis, and data-driven decision making. If you’re Lean or practicing continuous improvement, Kaizen should be embedded into everything you do. A Kaizen board is a tool to help you track and visual progress on your current and planned Kaizen efforts; it cannot (and will not) take the place of a culture of continuous improvement.