Lead with Virtue, Bind with Ritual

Confucius is credited with many insights into human nature and moral governance by his followers who recorded his teachings. They still influence culture and society in many Asian countries today.  Confucius observed “lead with virtue, bind with ritual”. This passage from Analects seems appropriate for our times. It is supported by recent findings in psychology and neuroscience. It is applicable to lean management.

Those who recorded the thought of Confucius imagined that in the ideal society there would be no punishment, and that people could be influenced through rituals to act with morality.

Lead them by political maneuvers, restrain them with punishments: the people will become cunning and shameless. Lead them by virtue, restrain them with ritual: they will develop a sense of shame and a sense of participation.

When people feel rules are unfair they will attempt to get around them or break them. When people are governed by laws and rules based on punishment, people may obey but they may not engage with the group or society in positive ways. When the leaders lead from virtue, people will be drawn to them, their ideas and the order they represent, and follow the rules voluntarily. Regulation and punishment pushes people away, while morality and mutual respect draw us closer together.

Rituals are ceremonies with religious or social meaning, consisting of a series of steps performed in a specific order. The value of the ritual is that those performing it believe that the ritual in some way benefits the people who perform it, or influences future actions in a positive way. Performing a ritual together influences our thoughts and perceptions about the world.

In lean management, the idea of standardized work shares several of the features of rituals. Standardized work also specifies a series of steps in a specific order. It is also designed with the belief that performing it brings good outcomes. The main difference may be that design of standardized work is almost always time-based, with each step needing to be completed at a certain pace to assure a good outcome. We may think of rituals as superstitious, not proven to work based on scientific observation. This is another way that standardized work and social or religious rituals differ. It does not matter whether people believe in standardized work, performing it yields good outcomes regardless.

Rituals on the other hand, depend on people to believe in them in order for them to have a desired effect. Recent progress in understanding the brain suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Our brains run simulations about the world around us, predicting outcomes. We perceive reality, and our predictions are either confirmed or corrected if they are in error. Our brains prefer confirmation, and can treat errors or mismatches as threats. Rituals are predictable. Rituals help to remove doubt. They reassure the human brain, calm our emotions and give us confidence through predictable behaviors and interactions between people.

A Scientific American article cites findings in sports psychology research that shows rituals and pre-performance routines affect an athlete’s performance by improving attention and execution, increase emotional stability and confidence. Of course, not all rituals work all of the time. We don’t yet understand what makes for better, more effective rituals, but there seems to be a correlation between the length, complexity and precision of the ritual with their impact. I suspect that the ritual needs to be sophisticated enough for the brain to treat it seriously as a simulation or prediction about the world.

Leading with virtue is self-explanatory, even if humans don’t always agree on the definition of virtue. What does it mean to bind with ritual? Binding does not mean to make people physically immobile but it does mean to limit our options, reduce our choices and simplify our decisions. Confucianism is a moral code, and as such it seeks to limit people to being virtuous. It seeks to assimilate people with other member and contributing to society in mutually beneficial ways. These are also the aims of lean management. To rephrase Confucius’ advice to lean leaders; demonstrate virtue and value by example, follow the ritual of leader standard work, bind everyone to follow their own standard work, and show respect.


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