The Definition of Insanity

By Jon Miller Updated on October 1st, 2017

Insanity is thinking or behavior that is unreasonable or irrational. Albert Einstein is often credited with observing that insanity is doing the same thing over and over a again and expecting different results. This definition seems too narrow for the broad range of things covered by insanity, for a man of Einstein’s intelligence. People repeat this definition of insanity over and over, as if expecting this will make people more rational. Einstein, known to have a sense of humor, may have appreciated the irony.

In lean and other change management contexts this definition of insanity is often used as an argument in favor of doing things differently. Do you want better results? Of course you do. Are your current methods getting you the results you want? Then why not try something different? No? Are you crazy? Instead of this dialogue, we put this definition on the screen and let the audience come to the conclusion that they are insane on their own. Crazy or not, we need to change how we think and behave if we want to make a lasting change in the results we achieve.

Even if doing the same thing over and over again is delivering good results for us, it is not totally unreasonable to expect that results will be different after further repetitions. As we do something over and over again the same way, we practice, learn, and improve. The results should be better. Even if we follow the same method, our muscles, our minds and the nervous system that connects them gets better at executing those instructions. Repetition can lead to mastery if for no other reason that we become able to do the same thing with less mental effort, less hesitation and fewer errors.

On the other hand, over time as we do the same thing over and over, entropy will set in and results will suffer. A lean thinking axiom is that a good process will bring good results. But even when we reliably perform the same process over and over, variation in the information, materials, environmental conditions and other change points can create different results. Unless we seek out and stabilize these change points, we should expect that doing the same thing over and over will at some point deliver different results.

What we think of as “doing the same thing” only accounts for the human factor. It is very difficult to account for all variables and do things exactly same way over and over again. It is unfair to accuse people of insanity when they haven’t been given the time to observe their work, breakdown the methods into its components, identify the variables and set standards. Doing the same thing over and over a again and expecting different results is not insanity. It is naive. We can influence the outcome of events on a reliable basis only with attention to cause and effect, by understanding systems, variation and human psychology.

  1. Owen A Berkeley-Hill

    October 3, 2017 - 6:31 am

    Einstein’s comment has been done to death by those trying to get people to change the way they think, but I suggest we should be a little more focused on who the “people” are: the leadership or the people of the Gemba? One could argue that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results could also apply to organisations which jump on every band wagon (in the era of band-wagon traffic jams) and expect improvements without the leadership involvement or the leadership learning anything new. Hasn’t that happened with Lean?

    For Lean to work, the organisation must be a Learning Organisation (good old Peter Senge) which that can only evolve when the leadership encourages Learning, which, let’s face it, not many CEOs do or know how to do. And so, I would suggest that if we stretch Einstein’s quote, we might include the need to change the thinking of the leadership, not something that can be done if we point our prayer mats at the B-Schools and accept the practice of fast-tracking their products to the top and then accept their outmoded thinking. After all, isn’t that just what Lean is about: a radically different leadership philosophy?

  2. Jon Miller

    October 3, 2017 - 3:43 pm

    Thanks Owen. Indeed, leaders expect better results even while not changing their own behaviors. Workers expect better pay and conditions, even without proactively engaging. The customer expects ever better quality and price, without always demanding that these things are done ethically sustainably, leading what goes around to come around and we all pay more in the end. I’m not sure the leadership philosophy needs to be radically different, but at a minimum with aligned expectations, incentives, and acting in accordance with a grasp of cause and effect.


    October 11, 2017 - 8:09 am

    “Life is variation. Variation there will always be, between people, in output, in service, in product. What is the variation trying to tell us about a process, and about the people that work in it?” This quote from W. Edwards Deming provides the foundation for a re-write of this worn quote. If one understands variation, the real definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same result. The challenge facing most leaders and improvement professionals is that they do not understand variation, nor what the variation in their data are telling them.

    • Jon Miller

      October 11, 2017 - 12:03 pm

      Well said, Eric!

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