A Little Kaizen and Yokoten Make a Successful NPLD Event
September 22, 2018
Amy Skalmusky

Kathryn Ragsdale, corporate communications manager for Toyota Motor North America, has been a National Public Lands Day volunteer since the Company began its partnership with NEEF in 1999. During this time, Ragsdale has not only helped support her local public lands, but has successfully applied two key concepts that shaped the way her plant approached NPLD.

Ragsdale started organizing NPLD events for team members at the Toyota Bodine plant in Troy, Missouri, where around 40 volunteers would participate each year. But things changed when she accepted a promotion to a significantly larger plant in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 2015.   “Going from approximately 40 volunteers to more than 400 volunteers for NPLD was thrilling,” said Ragsdale. “In Mississippi their NPLD was so massive that they had to pick out four or five different places to hold events.”

Ragsdale realized that this sizeable a group of volunteers could make a marked difference in the cleanup and restoration efforts of a public space.  But that wasn't the only thing that swayed her to make changes. “When I learned that my analyst, Emily Holland, was pulling out her hair trying to coordinate multiple sites and pull everything together,” she said, “I decided we would focus on a single location.”

Volunteers at a Toyota NPLD event in Tupelo, MS
Toyota volunteers at yearly NPLD event at Tombigbee State Park in Mississippi.

The chosen location was Tombigbee State Park, a public recreation area six miles south of Tupelo that surrounds Lake Lee. She suggested making a five-year commitment to focus on one location, which translated into more than $250,000 in materials for the projects to be carried out by Toyota volunteers. By focusing all their effort on one park, the group could demonstrate considerable improvements, thus motivating people to get involved, and consequently, extending NPLD's reach. 

She then challenged Holland to devise a new process for organizing NPLD, so that the bulk of the responsibility wouldn't fall on one or two people as it previously had. “Using the approach from my NPLD event in Missouri which focused on one location for long term partnership, I replicated (YOKOTEN) that approach,” said Ragsdale. Yokoten is a Japanese word that refers to the process for sharing learning laterally across an organization, or “horizontal deployment”.  Holland wasted no time in breaking down the tasks and identifying people willing to lead projects. “She created a task force that came together as a team and pulled the event off,” said Ragsdale.

Ragsdale has noticed an expansion in excitement in NPLD since the Tupelo team has been volunteering at Tombigbee and that team members have taken ownership of the project. “With the support and leadership of our President, Sean Suggs, the model that our team has developed has really taken on a life of its own,” she said. “It's not really all on one person or department, it's a shared project.”

Team Ownership

That ownership extends throughout the year. Ragsdale gives credit to Sean McCarthy, environmental specialist at Toyota MS who thinks all year about this event and serves as Project Director for NPLD in Mississippi.  He works onsite with the project leaders to identify the projects for the coming year.  Ragsdale says, “It's exciting to see them use their passion and expertise to drive their projects.” For example, one project leader, John Paul Blaylock, a camping enthusiast noticed the park's primitive camping area could use some improvements. He designed new features and submitted his plan to the task force to be included in that year's NPLD.  His team organized the materials and led volunteers at the campsites to upgrade the campsites.  Ragsdale says “It's such a transformation that the campsites are now rented out frequently.”

Expanding the Audience

In her previous role as NPLD site director, she included children in the activity with age appropriate games and activities targeted at protecting wildlife and the environment.  One such activity was an environmental relay race that involves children taking an item out of a basket full of clean, recyclable items and running down to the sorting station to put in the proper bin and back. Another, applying peanut butter and bird seed to pinecones to make bird feeders.

Kathryn Ragsdale and her son
Kathryn Ragsdale and her son, Ryan, who has been participating in NPLD events since he was five years old.

Ragsdale noticed that team members really enjoyed coming out with their families and that many had not been aware of the park before NPLD.  She saw this as a good opportunity to create activities for families to do together in the park and allow them to discover new things. “Not only do families get to come out and have an activity where they can volunteer and give back to the community,” she said, “they also discover another place to visit with their families and camp or have a picnic in the future.” In previous NPLD event's in MS was not able to allow the children of volunteers to participate. To encourage more team member volunteer engagement, Ragsdale and her team.

As NPLD grew project managers needed some assistance the day of NPLD activity.  Ragsdale employed Kaizen, Japanese for continuous improvement, and reached out to the local Boys & Girls Club to recruit young people to be junior assistant project managers to help support the team leads. The selection process consisted of mock applications and interviews held at the Boys & Girls club, along with a training session on their responsibilities during the NPLD event. “They took it very seriously, but it was fun,” said Ragsdale.

This year, Ragsdale and the team members in Tupelo will continue their work at Tombigbee by renovating the disc golf course, installing split rail fencing, and building workout stations along the hiking trails. At the end of the day, everyone comes together for their annual Volunteer Appreciation Picnic.

“I think it's important to remember that these public lands need to be protected. They need someone to take care of them,” she said. “Find out where you can help and get started.”

Ragsdale personally connects with public lands through her family as well. Taking her children to all those NPLD events in Missouri has helped to inspire her, now young adult children, to enjoy the outdoors.  Her twenty-five-year-old son has participated in NPLD with the family since he was five years old.  “When our volunteers broke into groups, Ryan always wanted to hang out with the park ranger,” said Ragsdale. His love of the outdoors continues as he is currently hiking across the Pacific Crest Trail and will likely return and work with park services.  “He graduated college, worked a traditional job, and decided to follow his passion,” she said. “So many good things have come out of NPLD!”

To learn more about National Public Lands Day, or to register your National Public Lands Day event, visit