Closing the loop – listen to Yoda

For a really effective way to manage complaints profitably, you have to be prepared to learn

I don’t often look to fictional characters for management advice, but if you’ve had any exposure to the Star Wars universe, you’ll know that diminutive Jedi master Yoda is capable of some cornball wisdom that occasionally hits the spot.

When it comes to complaints management his line from The Last Jedi “the greatest teacher failure is” pinpoints the difference between organisations that thrive on complaints management and those that would rather sweep their customers’ gripes under the carpet.

As I’ve mentioned before, complaints are a goldmine of opportunity for turning grumpy customers into raving fans and gaining enhanced revenue as a result. But to do this you have to have a fully joined-up approach that covers detection, handling and learning.

Back in 1990, Peter Senge, then Director of the Systems Thinking and Organisational Learning Programme at Sloan School, MIT, published a seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, that introduced the idea of the “Learning Organisation”. Re-reading it, I’m struck by how much advice it offered appears to fall into the category of the “bleeding obvious” – but on reflection has still not been adopted by most businesses.

Maybe the concept of a learning organisation sounds too academic, non-action orientated, even un-business-like to have gained real traction, but in the world of customer complaints a learning organisation focused on customer outcomes is exactly what you should strive to become.


Let’s reflect on Senge’s five disciplines of a learning organisation and see what they tell us:

  1. Systems thinking – the need to view the organisation as a joined-up whole, where actions in one part may have a positive or negative implication in another. Forgetting to think systemically is a trap that complaints managers can fall into. Actions with a positive effect in one area may result in negative effects elsewhere. Looking at end-to-end process rather than silo boundaries can help prevent this.
  2. Personal mastery – the requirement for individuals to commit to a process of wider learning, as the basis of organisational learning and therefore impact. This is straying into Yoda territory, but you need people who are committed to their continuous development so whilst fairly obvious, is key to managing complaints effectively, particularly as wider perspectives can be considered.
  3. Mental models – the need to test the assumptions held by individuals and the organisation about the way things work. Challenging these is essential for customer-centric innovation, particularly in response to complaints.
  4. Shared vision – seen by Senge as essential in motivating staff to learn. Although vision is seen by some as an outmoded concept, anything that motivates staff – I’d prefer a strong statement of purpose (e.g. our purpose is to use our customers’ feedback as the basis for improvement) – is valid here.
  5. Team learning – this“Fifth Discipline” is where the organisation builds on its individual responses to learn collectively about how it can improve. The benefit of this approach is that the problem-solving ability of an organisation is significantly enhanced, so arriving at a solution to a complaint-generated issue should be easier with this discipline in place.

In the loop

My back-of-an-envelope analysis of Senge’s model says that at least 80% of it is critical to closing the loop on complaints, but what is this loop that needs closing?

Put simply, there is a virtuous circle that organisations can put themselves in where what you learn from a failure to delight your customers feeds into improvement activity and a renewed commitment to detect when customers are unhappy.

In fact, this process is a version – admittedly rather high-level – of Senge’s first and most important discipline, systems thinking. So, how do you inject this approach into learning from customer complaints?

Beat the system

Anyone reading this piece who’s involved in complaints will be familiar with the various quality and other techniques used in Root Cause Analysis (RCA). I won’t reiterate them here – like any tool different techniques are applicable in different circumstances – but there’s a danger with the RCA approach. You may be able to get solutions that address the complaint but miss the big picture – or the organisation may feel that the big problem that’s preventing a breakthrough in customer satisfaction is too difficult to address.

The organisation can then find itself in the opposite of a virtuous circle where the solutions implemented from RCA fix point problems in the customer journey but don’t have much overall impact. As a result, RCA will be starved of the resource it needs to do a thorough job on the complaints in its workstack, results will be sub-optimal, and the cycle will continue.

To avoid this, complaints organisations need to make sure that they focus on customer outcomes – i.e. the underlying reason why the customer was using the product/service in the first place before things went wrong. This big picture thinking increases the likelihood of everyone addressing the underlying issues and, if your organisation is practising the other disciplines, it will pull together to fix them.


Here in Britain we’re recovering from a crisis (I may be exaggerating) in the fast-food world. Fried chicken purveyor KFC found itself unable to meet demand for its fowl-in-fat products following a switch of logistics supplier. The situation was so bad that it had to close most of its stores while it sorted out the issues. This is a clearly a big cock-up (I’m not the first to make that joke) and the advantage, if there is one, is that the error is glaringly obvious and therefore getting to the root cause should be straightforward – and resources will be thrown at the problem to solve it quickly.

KFC have done a good job of responding, at least in terms of publicity, with a public apology and long-term probably won’t suffer too much.

However, what’s obvious, to me, is that KFC failed to pass on the learning from one supplier to another: the logistics involved in getting chicken hygienically from slaughter to fryer are highly sophisticated, apparently. I assume that their previously logistics supplier had refined their approach in response to customer and front-line feedback, but this learning clearly hadn’t made it to the new provider. In an outsourced environment, keeping the virtuous circle of a learning organisation in motion is even more of a challenge.

As Yoda might have said, “learning organisation the biggest challenge is”.


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