Millions have read the much-publicized book In Search of Excellence, by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. One businessman, however, has actually taken an idea from the best-selling book and successfully put it to use.

Jack A. Bares, president of Milbar Corp., a $10-million manufacturer of specialty mechanics hand tools in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, became intrigued when he read how some companies pursue "excellence" by assigning ad hoc teams to specific and difficult tasks. Bares, who had been struggling with two particularly intractable problems, decided to give the concept a try. He created four teams. Two teams were assigned to each of the following goals:

* Find ways to reduce the production costs of one of the company's most popular tools, specialized pliers designed for dismantling fasteners. Milbar faced fierce competition from companies in Asia that were saturating the American market with tools made more cheaply.

* Develop hand tools that can effectively penetrate international markets.

Bares turned the assignment into a contest that ran from late July to mid-October 1983, and dubbed it the "Summer Sizzler." Each team was composed of six employees from the production, design, engineering, quality control, and accounting departments. Members met two or three times a week to brainstorm; some continued their work at night and on weekends. A banquet for all four teams was held at the end of the contest, at which Bares and an outside marketing consultant announced the two teams with the most innovative ideas in their category. A plaque and a $50 cash prize was awarded to each winning team member.

"I have served in management positions for about 25 small companies over my career, and I've never seen a single program generate as much enthusiasm as this one did," says Bares. "There was a phenomenal amount of team spirit. It got so competitive that some team members were actually spreading 'disinformation' around to confuse their rivals."

The winning team assigned to making plier production more efficient proposed ideas that will have slashed costs by 50% by this summer, when all its proposals are in place. For example, the company has ordered machines that enable workers to stamp vinyl on tools in-house, rather than the previous and more expensive method of contracting the job to outside vendors.

Research assembled by the winning team in charge of creating world-class tools found that adapting Milbar's designs to materials popular in Europe and Japan will result in products more readily accepted overseas. "The Orient has already captured about 25% of our domestic market," laments Bares. "We project that in the next 10 years, their share will grow to 50%. The ideas we got from this contest aren't just good -- they're vital to our survival."