JLA Architects: Standing firm on continuous improvement

Feature Jla Architects Dcsba Panel

After the year we’ve all just had, the Dane County Small Business Award recognition means a great deal to Joseph Lee, owner-principal of JLA Architects, because it provides reinforcement for the team’s operation and gives its team a sense of pride and motivation to continue along the current path.

The firm is guided by three big-picture goals: To provide great experiences for clients, to provide its team with a great environment featuring a dynamic, collaborative workplace where everybody feels empowered, and to make a positive impact beyond client work in the communities in which they work. “Our client work, our project work, inherently has an impact, but that goal, that big picture guiding philosophy has to do with more than just project work,” Lee explains.

Essential input

As an essential business, JLA could continue to operate in the early stages of the pandemic, and Lee attributes the firm’s growth to a team that has ample opportunity for operational input. “We have a great team,” he states. “It’s one thing to talk about a workplace that’s inclusive, but to be successful you need a team that really embraces that approach. Nothing else can happen without that, in my opinion, especially when you have a group of individuals who work in that manner in their roles and beyond their roles.”

In Lee’s view, this dynamic has a snowball effect because he firmly believes that a great team culture leads to great team performance. Given the adjustments made during the pandemic, that performance could be enhanced with a heightened ability to search for talent. “We’re pretty much local right now, but that’s one of the benefits of the past year — worrying about ourselves,” Lee states. “I guess if you were going to ask me a few months ago about remote work, I would have a much different opinion about it, but we’ve proven that we can work efficiently and effectively in a remote capacity.”

While it’s not his preferred method — in architecture, some in-person collaboration is desired — JLA has learned over the past year that it can adjust. “That’s opened my eyes a bit to potential future growth with people who might be in different geographic locations and working remotely.”

One internal program that stood out to Small Business Award judges is JLA’s influence groups, in which employees are encouraged to help shape JLA by participating in think-tank groups, which has resulted in various improvements. The firm has six influence groups, and they are organized either by firm role or by interest. Within each of the groups, members discuss their ideas to improve JLA outside of their project work.

Viewed as an important part of JLA’s operations, these spheres of influence have resulted in improved workflows, procedures, and standards — giving employees a stake in improving company performance. The firm’s director of operations serves as a facilitator, especially when there is a cross functional reason to do so, but these groups run independently and keep staffers engaged.

“They set their own goals and objectives,” Lee explains. “They operate independently from our operations team, and that is by design because we believe that independence and that autonomy is important.”

Another unique performance tool is JLA University, or JLA U, a team-directed practice where team members educate their peers. There is some similarity to influence groups because the architecture profession is so dynamic and complex, it requires lifelong learning, and that learning should be shared with colleagues. “People in our profession have such a wide variety of knowledge bases, interests, and backgrounds, and we believe everybody, no matter how many years they have been in the profession, they can learn something they don’t know,” Lee explains. “On the flip side, we believe that even the youngest people in the profession can teach something to those of us who have been in the profession for a while.

“So, being the collaborative team we are, JLA U was conceived as a way to mentor and share our knowledge and skills with the rest of the team.”

The main benefit is an increase in the team’s knowledge base, which directly leads to effective and efficient work and residual benefits such as team building, relationship building, and mentoring. “It’s not just a handful of people who can do this, it’s everybody,” Lee states. “People get a chance to hone their presentation skills, which is important when it comes to selling our designs to clients.”

Umbrella framework

JLA Give Back is the umbrella name for various team-directed initiatives that are part of the firm’s philanthropic program, including Dollars for Doers. It’s a program that encourages employees to volunteer their time outside of normal work hours, and JLA matches their volunteer hours with a monetary donation.

The firm also offers volunteer time off to every team member to volunteer for a nonprofit or a cause of their choosing, within certain parameters. As opposed to Dollars for Doers, this time off is during business hours. A third program under JLA Gives Back, also directed by team members, are quarterly team volunteer activities. Every quarter, a group conceives of and organizes events, the firm closes the office on given day and time, and the whole team does the same thing. In addition, the JLA ownership and operations teams target additional opportunities each year to give back to the community — donations, sponsorships, partnerships, grants and scholarships, and pro bono work. “That’s a whole other section of the JLA Gives Back but that’s more directed by ownership,” Lee explains.

Through the firm’s JLA Gives Back program, employees have volunteered with more than 35 different organizations since 2018, and the firm has provided pro bono architectural services to nonprofits such as One City Schools, Shelter from the Storm Ministries shelter, and River Food Pantry.

The events of past year compelled JLA to double down on its community involvement. “It’s something we were already doing, but the pandemic and the social unrest has magnified the need for all of us to do more to be socially responsible members of society,” Lee explains. “Giving back to our communities has always been a core value.”

The full-service architectural and planning firm employs 33 full-time and two part-time employees. It’s project portfolio ranges in size from small commercial remodels to large and complex multiuse facilities. Among its notable projects are The Current at Yahara Commons (where it relocated to in 2019), Buck & Honey’s in Monona, Garver Point, The Dude Abodes (Madison), and the redevelopment of Milwaukee’s Martin Luther King Library (in progress).

While JLA can’t play favorites and cite one that really stands out — they all have unique features that Lee appreciates — the firm’s expansion into different types of buildings has been one of the most gratifying things that has occurred since its 2007 founding.

“When we started out in 2007, my background was multifamily, mixed-use projects, and it’s still a good portion of our portfolio, but as we’ve strategically added people of different backgrounds and different experiences, it has allowed us to branch out in terms of project types and client types,” Lee notes. “In 2007, when we were doing mostly multifamily and mixed-use projects, we probably never thought we’d be doing a library.”

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