Industries of the Blind walks the path of lean manufacturing

It’s said you can never truly understand a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Last Thursday, I walked about 500 feet in the shoes of a blind person, and I got a pretty good notion of what it was like to be visually impaired.

Luckily for me, the impairment was caused by me closing my eyes. I was on the manufacturing floor of Industries of the Blind in Greensboro, North Carolina. The mobility experience was a part of the company’s first-ever Made in IOB hands-on, interactive event.

Founded in 1933 as the first work program in North Carolina organized for the visually impaired, Industries of the Blind works to eliminate barriers and empower its visually impaired staff to achieve personal growth, professional advancement and greater independence.

Practical Software Solutions was one of eight companies that were recognized at Made in IOB for donating to the organization’s general fund. Money raised will go toward purchasing assistive technology and adaptive aids, computer training and their technology center, and job readiness training and professional development.

Our relationship with IOB goes back to 2009, when the organization was looking to implement a new ERP system. But to tell the full story, you need to go back a step further — even further than the turn of the previous century.

A brief history of Industries of the Blind

North Carolina has a longstanding history of fostering the needs of the blind community. The Governor Morehead School, located in Raleigh, was founded in 1845 as the eighth school for the blind in the United States. Amazingly, only four years after the Civil War, North Carolina became the first state to serve visually impaired black students at the school.

IOB even predates the founding of the National Industries for the Blind, a non-profit organization created in response to the 1938 Wagner-O’Day Act. The legislation mandated that federal agencies prioritize purchasing to suppliers that employ the visually impaired. (The act was later expanded to include companies that employ the severely disabled, too.)

NIB is one of two private organizations that oversee the implementation and execution of the AbilityOne Program (the rebranded name of the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act).

IOB traces its humble beginnings to a leased store front on Elm Street in Greensboro, where six blind people were employed to assemble mops. During World War II, the organization employed 35 blind people, all of whom received medical and other benefits. This was a rarity for its time for any company.

(Then again, I’ve seen the hospital bill for my grandmother when my father was born 76 years ago this week. A week’s stay in the hospital was $36. That’s generally why people didn’t need medical benefits. But I digress …)

By 1962, IOB received its first $1 million contract, allowing the organization to expand even further. And when David LoPresti, the president of IOB, was brought on board, he worked to introduce new manufacturing methods and equipment that helped boost output and practically eliminated errors.

That was 2009, and that’s when we entered the picture as well.

Industries of the Blind gets lean with their manufacturing

LoPresti saw the same thing at IOB we see when we talk to people in the horticulture industry looking to buy greenhouse software that can manage their entire business. He wanted IOB to to think of itself like any other traditional manufacturer.

By subscribing to the theories of lean manufacturing, LoPresti knew they would be able to become more efficient, improve quality of their products and improve their bottom line. Part of that was choosing to implement Sage ERP MAS 500 (now known as Sage 500 ERP).

In less than two years after their Sage 500 implementation, some of the improvements IOB saw included:

  • Increasing their workforce to 100 people
  • Reducing inventory by roughly $1 million in a year’s time
  • Improving raw material inventory replenishment because of improved visibility in the system
  • On-time delivery increased by 5 percent
  • Increase sales from important customers because of increased efficiency throughout production
  • Streamlining communication with the Federal government through Military Standard Requisitioning and Issue Procedures (MILSTRIP) integration

And when IOB improves its bottom line, it helps create more opportunities and greater independence for the visually impaired people they employ and help in the community. This was the basis for the essay IOB submitted when they won the Sage Customer Award for Community Stewardship in 2011.

The proof is in the pudding: Five years on, IOB now employs more than 250 people and have produced U.S. Army combat jackets, cargo parachutes and ballistic nape pads, along with numerous other items for companies like Staples, Office Depot, American Apparel and Grainger.

They’ve also launched their own apparel line at Made in IOB: 33 & Elm. Their employees also modeled off their men’s dress shirts and T-shirts that featured artwork from local high school students.

Industries of the Blind is not a misnomer

The core criteria for companies to comply with the AbilityOne Program is that 75 percent of total direct labor hours must be performed by people who are visually impaired or severely disabled.

This means that an organization like IOB can’t and won’t hire sighted people just to do the work and pretend like a visually impaired person has done it all. That was also one of the criteria we had to meet when we were approached by IOB.

We had to make sure Sage 500 could be used with a number of accessible programs (such as Vocollect and JAWS) so their visually impaired employees can use the system without assistance. Laneé Kirby, IOB’s IT director, explained the importance of these programs back in 2011:

“By using JAWS with (Sage 500), a totally blind supervisor is now able to ‘see’ his own stock levels, work orders, and can input his own production entry,” she said. “With our old system, this had to be done for him. Integrating (Sage 500) and assistive technology enables our employees to use on-screen data to make decisions for themselves. This allows people who are blind to be a part of the process instead of outside players who are told what to make and when to make it.”

Industries of the Blind Made in IOB

Sharon Elosser, a Computer Operator III with Industries of the Blind in Greensboro, shows off how she uses adaptive technology in her job.

The Made in IOB event was the first time I actually had a chance to speak with with one of the visually impaired end-users of Sage 500. Sharon Elosser was manning the adaptive technology station. She’s a Computer Operator III in the Distribution Center and has been at IOB for 29 years.

You could tell she was so happy to talk a little shop about Sage 500 and how the adaptive technology helps her with her job. She couldn’t show the public her actual work inside Sage 500, but she showed how the adaptive technology works in general with Word and Excel. She also showed off the enlarged keyboards with Braille and other adaptive aids.

Here was someone who was reveling in her independence. She owned her work environment, just as any other person in the front office of any other manufacturing company would.

The future looks great for IOB, thanks to LoPresti’s efforts and the willingness of their Board of Directors and employees to take up the challenge of doing things differently. That’s always a challenge, because sometimes blindness isn’t physical. Being blind to hampering yourself because “you’ve always done it that way,” can hinder a company more than any physical impediment.

We’re so happy that our relationship with IOB has grown in so many ways over the years. Here’s to IOB’s continued success in being the great community stewards that they’ve been for more than 80 years.

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