Turd Polishing

In the course of a twitter conversation with Jim Harris I used the phrase “turd polishing” to describe what happens when organisations try to implement check-box based data governance or Compliance programmes, or invest in business intelligence or analytics strategies without

  • fixing the data which under pins those strategies
  • addressing the organisational cultural and structural issues which have lead to the problem in the first place.
I have witnessed this happening with organisations who, for example, decide that investing in e-learning with a “learning kpi” (x% of staff having reached y% pass mark on an multiple choice exam with a 1 in 4 chance of guessing the right answer) is their approach to evidencing culture change and the embedding of learning.
Of course, this fails miserably when
  • The cultural message is that data job isn’t as important as the Day Job
  • The management practice is to game the system (why take all your staff off the phones to do the learning when you have one person on the team who knows it who can do the exams for everyone with their logins?)
  • Management look only at the easy numbers (the easily gathered test scores at the end of an assessment period).
  • If management seek to rule by fear or quota (“hit these numbers and those numbers or else….”)
If management seek to overlay a veneer of good governance on an unaligned/misaligned  and otherwise outright broken Quality Culture that doesn’t seek to value or maximise the value of their Information are engaging in little more than Turd Polishing. Turd Polishing can be seen in organisations that value Scrap and Rework over re-engineering as a way to address their quality goals. Turd Polishing can be seen in organisations that fudge reports to Regulators or announce “reviews” of issues that everyone has already identified the root causes of around the water coolers and coffee jugs.
No amount of elbow grease and turd polish will change the underlying essence of what is being done. Nothing will improve, but increasing amounts of polish will be required to dress up the turd as a sustainable change programme.
The alternative is to call a turd a turd but work with it to bring out the special properties of manure that can help promote growth and give rise to sweet smelling flowers. That requires spade work and patience to bring about the change of state from turd to engine of growth. But no polishing is required.
In summary – turd polishing gives you a shiny turd that is still a turd. Digging into the manure can lead to you coming up roses.