Podcast Masterminds in Maintenance

S2:E15 People and Culture with Cliff Williams

Ryan Chan

Cliff is the Principal Advisor on Maintenance and Reliability at People & Processes, and also a member of the Board of Directors for the Plant Engineering and Maintenance Association of Canada!


In this week’s episode of Masterminds in Maintenance, we are thrilled to have Cliff Williams on the show! Cliff and Ryan discuss maintenance and reliability practices in regards to leadership, people, and culture. Listen today!

Episode Show Notes

  • How do teams learn from mistakes, but stay successful?
  • What are some tips for driving empowerment?
  • What processes can promote success or prevent success?

Podcast Platforms


00:03 Ryan: Welcome to Masterminds in Maintenance, a podcast for those with new ideas in maintenance. I’m your host, Ryan, I’m the CEO and founder of UpKeep. Each week I’ll be meeting with a guest who’s had an idea for how to shake things up in the maintenance and reliability industry. Sometimes their idea failed, sometimes it made their business more successful, and other times their idea revolutionized an entire industry. Today I’m super excited. We’ve got Cliff Williams here on the show. Cliff is a wealth of knowledge in the maintenance and reliability space. Cliff currently is the principal advisor on maintenance and reliability at People and Processes, a global consulting and educational service firm focused on the full spectrum of physical asset management. He’s also a member of the board of directors for the Plant Engineering and Maintenance Association of Canada. Welcome to the show, Cliff. I’m really excited to have you as a guest here on the podcast and learn from you.

00:51 Cliff Williams: Oh, thank you, Ryan. Thank you for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be here and I’m looking forward to talking and probably learning from you.

01:00 Ryan: There’s so many different ways that we could both learn from each other. Why don’t we kick it off, and the way that we always do is start by sharing a little bit more about yourself, your background, and how you got introduced and started into this space in this wonderful niche of maintenance and reliability.

01:16 CW: I am the principal advisor with People and Processes. I am also the corporate maintenance manager for a Canadian chemical manufacturer and I’ve worked in numerous sectors from all facets of steel making through to Coca-Cola. From steel to the cans, problems or challenges, and the opportunities that we face are all exactly the same. I started out a long time ago. It was in the days when maintenance really wasn’t a science. We would install equipment and if it was important enough, we would install equipment next to it so that when one broke, we would start the other one up and we would run with it. Then in the mid-70s, I decided to take a new adventure, there was this wonderful thing called a computer. I helped implement what was one of the very first computerized maintenance management systems. The computer was the size of a semi-truck so yeah, times have changed.

02:21 Ryan: I’m kind of curious what that looked like and I might have to go Google some pictures right after this, Cliff.


02:26 Ryan: So Cliff, I mean you’ve seen so much over the past few years. Now, I know you’ve dedicated a big portion of your career to People and Process. I’m curious, what are some processes, procedures that a maintenance organization must have in place to enable their team to bring their best to work every single day, and I’m also curious, on the flip side of that, what have you seen in your experience really hold maintenance and reliability teams back?

02:56 CW: Whatever processes or procedures that you have, they’ve got to be aligned so that you’re having one system that is supporting another system and supporting another system, that all of the processes and the procedures are supporting each other. And they in turn need to be in support of the organization’s strategic objectives. The processes and the procedures are important, but it’s what is going on, the culture and the rationale that’s going on behind those processes and procedures that actually is going to determine whether they’re going to be successful or they’re not going to be successful. If you’re telling people that they’re empowered, engaged and to take the road, then the procedures and the processes have to support that, and what are the norms for the organization? You want them to exhibit the behaviors that are going to make you successful, and what’s gonna drive that are going to be your processes and procedures. To come up with a list of processes and procedures that all organizations require, makes the mistake of assuming that all organizations are the same. And really, it’s the culture side of things that will help decide which policies, which procedures, which processes you have in place.

04:19 Ryan: I think the challenge that we’ve heard though is like, what are some tactical things that we can drive empowerment to drive this kind of positive culture that we want?

04:30 CW: The culture and driving the empowerment, it’s all about behaviors. So you need to take a look at what your goals are, understanding very clearly how you can achieve those goals, and then understanding what parts the different people play in that. Leaders are afraid to delegate. Authority is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. People get into a leadership role and they think, “Yes, leadership that involves taking authority. I’m the guy that takes authority.” Why? If there is someone else that can do what you are doing without a great deal of training, without a great deal of changes, why not allow them to do it? We have to show through our norms and our behaviors that we believe that these people are capable of doing it and that we will involve them. And delegation is not dumping, just making sure that the team has the authority to do what they need to do to move the problem forward. Are you getting in the way or are you enabling that people move forward? As a leader, you will always be responsible for it, for the team. Then maybe course corrections, then maybe we have to say, “Okay, that one tried, that one failed.” But again, if someone fails during empowerment, is that a bad thing? It’s not a really great thing but again, if you don’t take the risk and you don’t make these changes then you’ll never fail. That’s great, but you also won’t improve.

06:08 Ryan: What if I am a maintenance technician, I’m a welder at my company, what are ways and opportunities for me to also try to drive more empowerment of myself as an individual contributor?

06:22 CW: And you allow those opportunities to take on stronger roles in projects. Give them responsibility for areas. The way we did it was to divide our plant up into certain areas and give that group in that area responsibility for that area. They would be involved in planning, rather than I would be involved in planning. I would still oversee all of this, but it’s taking that and expanding their roles. Rather than saying “Okay, you’re a welder, so you weld.” No, “You’re a welder, you solve problems. That’s what you do for me.” I don’t want a welder, I want someone that’s going to solves our problems. Most people think that communication is talking, it’s not. Communication is talking, it’s listening, it’s giving feedback on that listening, it’s giving feedback on the feedback on the listening and everything like that, and building that up so that the people feel involved. So that the welder there, he can feel comfortable in saying, “Okay, this is what I’d like to talk about. Have we ever thought about this, Cliff?”

07:25 Ryan: I think that’s a great, and very tactical thing that our listeners could really take on. Which is, instead of calling people by what they might do on a 90% basis of their time, you give them that empowerment responsibility of fixing problems and maybe they’re problem solver for a particular piece of the plan. I’m also curious, obviously you’ve seen so much change happen over the past few decades in this space, where do you see technology fitting in? Is technology helpful? Is it necessary? Is it a deterrence to driving process and positive change?

08:03 CW: Technology definitely has a part to play in this. We’re in a position where you can take data, convert it into information. You can take that information, convert it into knowledge. You can take that knowledge and make it into an understanding, and then you can take that understanding and build it into wisdom. When you’re working from a position of communal wisdom reality, change is easier. People understand, they can see the reality, whether it be the condition of our equipment, whether it be communication tools. We can show the welder how by solving his problems, he’s actually affecting the performance of our department, and how the performance of our department is affecting the performance of our organization. That now becomes a lot easier because of technology say, an IIoT. But again, it’s going to change the playing field, but it’s also gonna bring its own challenges as we take that welder and we show him how IIoT or AI and all of these things can help him solve those problems. But technology has got a tremendous part to play in this.

09:14 Ryan: We obviously believe that technology has a big role to play as well, but we also know that people are the core and the crux of everything that goes on in a plant. You know Cliff, something that you mentioned that I thought was really interesting was like, be okay with change, be okay with failure, but don’t tolerate too much failure. So now we get into this balancing act of demanding excellence, striving for the best, striving to set a really high bar, but also play this balance of, “It’s okay to make mistakes too.” So I’m curious if you have any tips, advice, suggestions on me as a leader trying to manage a team, say like, “The bar is up here, we gotta strive for excellence, but it’s okay if we make some mistakes along the way.”

10:06 CW: Maybe I said it a little bit wrong when I say it’s okay to make mistakes along the way. It’s okay if you make the mistakes for the right reasons.


10:17 CW: There are some people who would make mistakes just because they have not participated, they have not been interested, they have not tried to learn and all of those things, but it keeps coming back to how do we enable them to make at least the right informed decisions to the best level that they can. If people do that, that’s all you can expect of them. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It’s a great learning experience when people talk about accountability. So if they do something wrong, hold them accountable. Have a learning experience. “Why didn’t that work? Why didn’t that succeed? What did we miss out?” And it’s “we,” it’s not “you.” It’s not “What did you miss out?” It’s “What did we miss out?” I’m the person whose role is to enable you and empower you and inform you and give you the tools to be successful. You’re not accepting failure, you’re understanding why you failed and how you can move forward. And again, it’s back to relationships. Do they trust you enough to take these risks and fail?

11:27 Ryan: Yeah.

11:28 CW: And do they trust you that you will come back and you will build on that? Not that it will be a blame issue, not that it will be a “Oh, let’s point fingers at… ” No, it’s okay, we failed, this is what we’re gonna do different next time, and hopefully we’re gonna succeed. It’s all about that relationship and having that understanding with the team so that they feel it’s okay to fail. Not being happy about it, but at least feeling that it’s not gonna be in our repercussions because I failed. As long as I do… As long as I make an informed decision and the most informed that I can, yeah, okay.

12:09 Ryan: I love that perspective. Internally, we’ve got this idea of progress over perfection. It’s about making progress every single step of the way, it’s not about doing everything to 100% perfection every single time. It’s just that, like you mentioned, we make mistakes for the right reasons, we learn from them and we get better the next time around. To kind of wrap things up, what’s one thing that you wish more people knew about in the maintenance and reliability space?

12:38 CW: I don’t know if it’s people don’t know, but I think people forget, and just we keep using this word all the time, but it’s about people. They have lives outside of work, they will be your best tradesman who’s really helpful today, maybe a pain tomorrow because his basketball team lost, not that teams from Toronto lose but…


13:05 CW: We’re okay here. But know there are things that upset people, they are… People change, it’s about understanding the people because they’re going to help you succeed. The equipment’s not going to help you succeed. I’ve worked with some very, very complex equipment, but I worked with more complex people, and it really is understanding those people and understanding how you can help them succeed, because without their success, you’re not getting any.

13:33 Ryan: What are some different ways that our listeners can follow you and connect with you and learn more from you, Cliff?

13:41 CW: You can follow me on LinkedIn. You can reach me at, [email protected] Very active in various podcasts, websites, everything like that. I can be reached at [email protected] I can be reached through PEMAC, the Canadian Asset Management Organization. Pretty much anywhere, I’m there or there about so…


14:13 Ryan: Alright. Well, I’m looking forward to seeing you at the next SMRP Conference, maybe you can… One sooner as well Cliff. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to today’s Masterminds in Maintenance. My name again, is Ryan, I’m the CEO and founder of UpKeep. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or directly at [email protected] You can also find me in the maintenance community on LinkedIn. It’s the largest online community for maintenance professionals around the world, where we host weekly conversations, contests, all centered around maintenance. Thanks again, Cliff. I hope to connect with you again very, very soon. Until next time, thanks again.

14:49 CW: Thank you very much Ryan. Bye now.

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