How can rituals help your lean effort?

New years reception at work

Imagine that you are at a new years reception at your job. This reception has the same format each year: nice drinks, people wishing each other well, speeches by senior management, special attention for employees who did exceptionally well, the reflection on the past year and looking ahead to the next year.

Some people love this reception, others hate it. But very few people would feel like they could miss out on it. When you are at the reception there is a nice and relaxed vibe and you speak to some people you have not spoken too in a long time.

In many ways this reception is a ritual which gives the employees in this company a sense of belonging. Rituals are an often overlooked part in change management. Let’s take a look at them here.

Definition and purpose of a ritual

Rituals are usually defined as a solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions. These actions are performed according to a prescribed order.

Rituals serve several purposes:

  • They remind us of our interconnectness
  • They offer a sense of renewal
  • They offer us a time out of everyday hustle and bustle and relax
  • They can mark transitions from one stage/year to the next
  • They offer a sense of belonging. When you are par of the ritual you belong to the group.

By fulfilling these purposes rituals can strengthen identity and structure life.

rituals give sense of belonging

Rituals in everyday life and in business

Humans have always used rituals. In the past centuries rituals have mostly been religious (baptism, confession among others) and tied to big life events (marriage, death and birth). These rituals structure life and strengthen identity.

In a more secular society you see different rituals developing, but many of them are still surrounding the big life events (gender reveal parties). Everyday life is full of rituals, for instance around Christmas with lighting the Christmas tree or with rituals surrounding eating and drinking as a family (saying prayers, who eats first).

In business rituals can serve the same purpose. They can help employees bond and make them proud of the company they work for. The example of the new years reception was just one example. In a company I worked in there was a ritual surrounding volunteers work. The company felt being socially responsible was central to their image. So every team got a budget to go and do volunteer work at least once a year. When they did this the day would follow a specific playbook of employees giving gifts to the people they were helping, of employees receiving a nice lunch during their volunteer work and of employees staying after work for a drink. Each year the company celebrates everybody who has done volunteer work by inviting them to a nice breakfast and inspirational speech. Imagine what this does for the culture of a company. There are many different types of rituals as you can see in the table below.


Rites of passageA rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person’s transition from one status to another. Rites of passage are marked by three stages: separation, transition and incorporation.Confirming a new identity and position in the groupIn work environments retirement, promotion and anniversaries are good examples.
Calendrical and commemorative rites These rites are ritual events marking particular times of year, or a fixed period since an important event.They give social meaning to the passage of time, creating repetitive weekly, monthly or yearly cycles.In business you can see this in yearly budget and salary rounds, but also in festivities surrounding the founding of the company or other important dates regarding the company.
Rites of exchange and communionThis genre of ritual encompasses forms of sacrifice and offering meant to praise, please or placate divine powers.The purpose of this type of ritual can differ. Sometimes it will be done for personal gain, but sometimes it is just for devotion.I have not yet seen one of these in business although some mass lay offs can resemble this type of ritual. In cults this type of ritual is very normal by giving yourself or wealth or gifts to the leader.
Rites of afflictionThese involve actions that seek to mitigate spirits that inflict humans with misfortune.This is meant to protect against bad Fortune.In sports these are well known. Like wearing a certain pair of socks, never touch the line etc. Some businesses use this when they have to take a gamble on a big sales opportunity.
Rites of feasting, fasting and festivalsThese are rites through which a community publicly expresses an adherence to basic, shared religious values, rather than to the overt presence of deities as is found in rites of affliction where feasting or fasting may also take place.This goes of ritual gives a shared community identity. You have to be there to belong.In business there are feasts that are important to the identity of the company. For instance the yearly barbecue or the yearly volunteer work.
Political ritualsThese rituals are about constructing or confronting power.When powerplayers are able to perform these rituals well, they are seen as good leaders. When they are not able to it is usually perceived as a bad omen.Inaugurations are a prime example of these. If you do not perform well at your inauguration it does not bode well for you.

When do rituals work?

Rituals only work when they align with the company culture. So when you want to start a ritual, but it does not align well with company culture you need to consider how to proceed. Do you change the ritual? Or do you change the culture? I personally favor the first. It is easier to change the ritual than the culture. And an effective ritual can help in changing culture.

An example of rituals and culture clashing can be a scrum team where everybody in the development team has the same amount of power to decide what will be done in the upcoming sprint, while the company culture is very hierarchical and does not believe in everybody having equal say.

Within lean a well known one is where you will blame processes instead of people. In a culture where there is a lot of focus on peoples own responsibility, lean can feel counterintuitive.

Rituals can help ease this kind of stress and friction by giving a structured outlet to it. I know of a team where people where very hard on themselves when something went wrong. Because they were so hard on themselves they stressed out whenever something went wrong.  This stress blocked their ability to critically analyze the process. They felt uncomfortable just blaming the process, because it felt people where then absolved from mistakes. We instituted a ritual where the first couple of minutes of the meeting was just them being frustrated at themselves, afterwards they reflected on this frustration and on how to learn from this before they transitioned into lean methods. I used a couple of the 6 thinking hats on this with them. After some time they got to the point where they saw that personal responsibility is redefined, but not rescinded by lean.

Some teams have real trouble celebrating successes. The causes for this can be manifold, like perfectionism or being embarrased to give yourself a compliment. Working with rituals can help with this as well, by building in a regular mechanism and specific form to celebrate success it becomes safe and comfortable to do this.

How to start a new ritual?

You need to prepare by:

  • You need to know the purpose of the ritual. Which problem or tension is it supposed to help with?
  • You need to know the culture of the company and the team you want to design a ritual for. You can read how to do this in my blog on analyzing culture.
  • You also need to decide whether you want to design the ritual together with the employees, management or on your own. I have a preference for designing a ritual in a group. You can design rituals with a focus on silence, movement, talking, props, writing, singing, dressing up and so much more. The most important part of designing a ritual is designing the narrative that will accompany the ritual. Also important part in business settings are humor and the visual aspect of the ritual.
  • You need to know about the daily, weekly and other regular routines of the team or company to find a ‘sweet spot’ for performing the ritual.
  • You need to know what employees value the most in their company. Which attributes or props do they instantly recognize as being part of the DNA of the company or the team?

You need to design several alternatives and test them on different occasions. Have fun while testing them and try their limits. Be aware that rituals may seem static, but they are not static. They keep changing along with the people who are performing the ritual. This is ok.

Not everybody will be enthusiastic about the ritual al first. This is why narrative and purpose are very important, along with an engaged leadership. I will get bet to the topic of designing rituals in more detail in later blogs.


Add Comment